A Sound Theory

“Music does indeed take us to another world. Or, more accurately, it points us there.”

Randy Newman

Sound is heard when a vibrating object physically interacts with a medium (air, water, etc.), creating a wave of oscillating high and low pressure particles which rattle our eardrums, our brain then interprets the vibrations and gives us the sensation we call hearing, sound.

That’s what sound is… but what does it mean?

What does it mean that arranging sounds one way gives you Ben Stein reading a phonebook, and ordering the vibrations a different way gives you Hey Jude? Is this worthy of our attention? Do both equally satisfy your soul? If not, why not? 

Not All Sounds Are Created Equal 

Lets cut to the chase. Listening to a Violin, played by a master Violinist is objectively better than a symphony of toddlers wielding bullhorns. Why is that?

So far as I can tell, there are three things that make music distinct from mere noise. And no, I’m not talking about rhythm, melody, and pitch. I’m talking about order, transcendence, and the emotion it evokes within.

Granted, there is Slipknot and other of the troubled, less than happy, Ruckus Propagandists. But generally speaking, music is distinguished by the purposeful ordering of sounds in service to a supernatural, symphonic narrative, crafted to elicit emotion in the heart.

What do I mean? Let me explain.

First Things First, Beauty

To have a real conversation about what music is, we first have to talk about what music conveys. Like beauty. 

When we call something beautiful, are we saying something about what the object is, or are we simply making a statement about how the object makes us feel? In other words, does beauty depend on us, or something outside of us (transcendent to us)?

If there’s no transcendent measure of beauty, then every song and sound has only as much value as the individual ascribes to it. In which case, if everything can potentially be the most beautiful, then nothing is truly beautiful at bottom. But, if you could find even one thing that lacks any possibility of being beautiful (something universally hideous), then beauty is objective. A transcendent measure of the beautiful must then exist.

What then does it mean to say that there exists a transcendent, or supernatural standard of beauty? It means that beauty is not dependent on us [the passive perceivers] but is grounded in something outside of us and outside of the object in question. 

Back to Music 

If then music is a vehicle for communicating beauty, it follows that the musician, when he or she puts to the task of crafting a beautiful melody, is attempting to capture that which is without and not what is within. 

Music is our attempt at describing the Good, the True, and the Beautiful; the Divine. In some ways, ways that don’t pertain to Scripture, it might be better suited for the task than even language. 

“But what about songs of misery, sad songs, songs of despair? How do these communicate the divine?”

I’m so glad you asked. God laments. Jesus wept. Turmoil and angst, frustration is the most righteous response when faced with all the evil this world is capable of producing. Songs of lament are good because they capture that truth and God’s disposition towards evil.

Biased Rants on Anti-Music and Music with a Forked Tongue

Screamo fans and Hip-hop devotees, don’t hate me. 

This isn’t a wholesale denunciation of your genres outright, but I have something I want you to consider.

First, Screamo. I have some questions:

“If you can communicate sadness in music without lyrics, can you communicate hate also? There is a Godly hate for sure (hate for sin), but is that the kind of hate we communicate. Is our hate stained by our heart? And if so, is that what’s being conveyed in Screamo?

What music would you use in the background of a movie made to glorify mass killings? And what does it say about that music?”

I propose, if music is a capturing of the Good, the True, and the Beautiful through the intentional ordering of sound, then Screamo might just be the disturbing perversion of music to express the vile. A hijacking of music to deliver insults Heavenward. A willful deviation from the purpose for which music exists.

But what if the lyrics are wholly good and beautiful?” 

As lyrics deliver content, God glorifying or not, so the music itself communicates content either consistent with the lyrical message or contra it. My visceral response to Screamo makes me suspect that the musical content runs contrary to any life-giving lyrical content that may be offered. I might be wrong about that, but I might not be.

God hates wickedness and maybe Screamo rightly captures the just hatred that will befall the unrepentant on that day, when God will judge the world. Or the depths of despair that haunt the sin ravaged soul. It’s possible. I’m just not a fan.

But Hip-hop. Of this I’m sure, it sells mischief with the Beautiful. It hides bad in the Good. Hip-hop often employs everything that’s good and wonderful about music (creating an emotionally stirring experience by utilizing the Transcendent), only to confuse the hearer by deceptively introducing the false and abhorrent right alongside the Good. Catchy tunes extolling drugs, sex, and money. Tempting the listener to swallow the bad with the good.

And lest we think Dr. Dre is alone in his error, there are plenty of examples where “Christian” bands have deceived in the same exact way. Can anyone say Jesus Culture?

A Closing Thought

You can use a hammer as a paper weight. You can use it to scratch your back. You might even use it as a prop to keep the door open while you grab something from the car. But no matter how you use a hammer, it was made to pound nails. 

You have folds of mucus membranes in your neck that manhandle the air your lungs forcefully expel over them, helping you create sound. Sound that you can direct upwards in songs of praise or shouts of disgust. 

I’ll let you decide why you think they’re there.

“Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits,”

Psalm 103:2

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