17 January 2022
Music can be said to be a universal language that every society cannot live without. Whether simple or complex, music has been proven to be one of the most beautiful gifts from God to humankind. We can be differently gifted, but music in its very presence has the power to enrich every soul that wants to be blessed by God.
What can we learn through music? How can we benefit from music in our everydayness? Certain things can be learned from their relation to music. There is, for instance, a relation between music and the art of patience.
Jeremy Begbie, who specializes in the interface between music and theology, writes: “Because music takes or demands our time and depends on carefully timed relations between notes, it cannot be rushed. It schools us in the art of patience. Certainly we can play or sing a piece of music faster. But we can do this only to a very limited degree before the piece becomes incoherent.”
This contrasts with our rushed daily ‘liturgy’ which makes us impatient to pass through the necessary processes of “being caught up in this series of relations and transformations” as part of our growth and development. Instead, achievement of instant results and goals become virtues of the day.
Yet, with the phenomenon of music, no one would listen to ‘fast-forwarded’ music only to lay claim that he or she has listened more effectively than the others. Singing a song as fast as possible only to prove that one can finish the ‘job’ faster than others would be a very strange and unwelcomed approach to singing. We have to invest our time in listening to beautiful music, and that trains us to be more patient.
Strongly related to patience, music in relaying to us its visceral effects, can also teach us the art of sacrifice. The composer James MacMillan reminds us that music “needs us to sacrifice something of ourselves to meet it, and it’s very difficult sometimes to do that, especially [in] the whole culture we’re in. Sacrifice and self-sacrifice—certainly sacrificing your time—is not valued anymore.”
This stands in opposition to our ‘effective’ (read: obsessive) use of time, which gives no place for ‘idle’ sacrifice.
Not only does music require our sacrifice, the beauty of music itself can also only be meaningfully perceived through its own ‘sacrifice’, that is, through the beauty of its finitude and transience.
Transience, which depends on the coming into presence and vanishing of tones is an essential aspect of music. We cannot listen to a melody without any tone giving up its existence. Music can teach us that being finite and replaced by others is necessary to complete the big picture.
Our contemporary culture, on the contrary, believes in the myth of worldly permanence, of lasting (yet annoying) existence. If, as Christians, we truly believe in Christ’s resurrection, then we should have the courage to die, vanish, and be replaced; precisely because we believe that our being and existence will be remembered by God.
Music, along with other arts, can also function as an antidote to clichés. No one buys music online only to listen to it once in a lifetime. We listen to the same music repetitively and we do not find ourselves saying: “Oh, I already heard that piece. I want to listen to something new.” We can listen to the same music again and again, without perceiving that piece of music as cliché.
The habit of listening to music or singing can become a healthy liturgy, not only in Sunday worship services, but also in our everydayness. In many cases, everydayness can be occupied with anti-liturgies that stand in contrast to Christian liturgy.
Listening to music is neither a duty nor a task to be done. We are not obligated in any way to listen to music. Rather, we are invited to participate in its beauty. Perhaps Luther was not wrong when he said that next to the Word of God, music deserves the highest praise. The Word of God, too, invites us to listen and to admire its beauty.
Giving oneself to amazement needs childlike humility. Our worldly liturgy, however, teaches us that adults should not be easily amazed and surprised, for it will sacrifice adult ‘dignity’. Through music, childlike admiration can be restored.
Being amazed allows us to experience things joyfully. To live happily is not to be obliged to do some duties but to be invited to experience the presence of God through his gift and revelation.
This is not to say that music possesses a sacramental value but that it can serve as a medium to bring us closer to the knowledge of God’s bountiful gifts. Yet, music does not deal only with positive experience but also with a negative ones through lamentation. Suffering should not overcome us but can be expressed through lamenting music before and in relation to God.
Luther wrote that music is a mistress and governess of human (uncontrollable) emotions. Through music we learn that we are not servants of our carnal emotions.
Lastly, through music we offer our praise to God. If Christian life is about thanksgiving, then we need a means to express that gratitude. One will hardly find more effective means than music for a doxology. We do not praise music; we praise God, the source of all beauties, who gives us music in our lives.
Dr Billy Kristanto is the Academic Dean at International Reformed Evangelical Seminary Jakarta. Graduated from Heidelberg University (Ph.D in musicology, Th.D in systematic theology), he is an ordained pastor of Reformed Evangelical Church of Indonesia.