When it comes to breathing, we just don’t think about it, whether it be regarding the act of breathing or the essence of breathing. It’s basic to who we are, thus we rarely take the time to appreciate its complexity and beauty. Likewise, the consumption of music is as natural to us as breathing. We are surrounded by music – it saturates the airwaves and occupies space on electronic devices and bookshelves (if you have CDs, LPs, cassettes, etc.). Music is so easily accessible today that it’s something we take for granted – we get annoyed when the radio plays songs we don’t like, we can easily access our favorite album and listen to it as much as we want, and we can purchase and discard music on a whim. Like breathing, we rarely take the time to appreciate music’s complexity and beauty, and thus fail to appreciate music as it is.
Perhaps what I’ve shared is more of a reflection of me than of people in general. Regardless, it’s a slumber in which I often find myself. I have been involved in music for thirty years as a drummer – it is such a part of me that I often take music for granted. This is particularly the case when it comes to the music that I listen to. I indulge in listening to music at my convenience and impulse, and just as quickly brush it away as distracting noise and an annoyance. Music, often times, is just a convenience to enjoy as I would a good movie or book.
However, just as Hume awoke Kant from his “dogmatic slumber”, so did Shearwater’s Pale Kings awake me today from my most recent bout of consumeristic apathy toward music. As I was driving to work, Pale Kings filled my ears when I was struck by how the music – not the lyrics – expressed and communicated how I am feeling today and this past week. I can’t really put it in words – but the chord structure; the instrumentation; the tension between a slow lyrical rhythm and an active, moving instrumental rhythm—the song in its entirety said something that I could not – and cannot – verbalize. If someone were to ask, “How are you today?” I can point to Pale Kings and say, “This!”
The nature of music is a matter that has captured and occupied the imaginations of thinkers and musicians of ages past and present. There is something to it that is more than just its notes, melody, chorus, and lyrics. Music can capture our emotions and express our deepest longings in ways that words cannot. Music can sweep us up in into exhilaration or drag us down into despair. With the music-saturated culture, I think we often we fail to appreciate this power of music.
What I say here is not meant to downplay or reduce the power of the spoken word. That is further from the truth. God has spoken to us through his Word, and his Truth is communicated through word. What we say and express carries much weight. But, Scripture also illustrates the limited nature of human communication. In Romans 8:26-27, Paul states: “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words” (ESV). To be clear, this passage refers to our prayers to God, particularly as we live in a fallen world as we “groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies” (Rom. 8:23). So, Paul isn’t speaking specifically to the limited nature of our language; however, I do believe that we can infer from Paul that there are times when experience the inadequacy of language.
There are times in prayer where words fail to do justice to what we want to express, and all that we can do is groan. Amazingly, and mercifully, the Holy Spirit knows our heart helps us in our weakness and intercedes for us. Broadening out our perspective, we experience the limited nature of words when we try to express the depth of love we have for our spouse, or when we are so angry that we can only growl and huff about, or when we are overcome with gratitude that we can only weep. The spoken and written word is a vital and necessary aspect of our communication – it is the primary means by which we communicate with one another and (more importantly) how God communicates to us. However, just as we are finite, so is our language in its ability to fully express the depths of our heart.
In light of our language’s finite nature, God has given us the ability to create music to be able to express our thoughts and feelings in ways that words cannot. Granted, I believe that there are other reasons why God has given us musical ability, but what’s germane to this post is the idea that God has given us music as a form of communication and expression that helps to carry our words farther than they can on their own. The music we listen to, then, does more than entertain us or serve to satisfy our consumeristic desires. Rather, it carries with it the ability to express the myriad of emotions and thoughts that swirl below the surface of our spoken word.
There is so much more to say here, but I’ve gone long enough. So allow me to summarize further thoughts: How beautiful, then, when the spoken word and music are perfectly wedded that points us to who God is and what he has done in Christ (for me, the one of the best examples is Andrew Peterson’s So Long, Moses)! Further, what a great responsibility we have in ensuring that our music accurately reflects the intent and message of the spoken word (i.e. the lyrics of our hymns, praise songs, etc.); if there is dissonance between the two, then the impact of the song’s message can be diminished. Finally, what a beautiful mystery music is! Think about it, God has created us – and the world – such that we can string together notes and rhythms in such a way that the very depths of our being is moved to respond. Music is so much more than the sound waves vibrating our eardrums—it is the means by which we can communicate and express ourselves more richly and fully.
I realize that this post can imply a sort of dualism between music and the spoken word. In fact, there are those who place more emphasis on one over the other. What I am trying to communicate is that music plays an important role in how we communicate – a role we tend to neglect or take for granted. I believe the spoken word has primacy over music—it is the means by which we communicate (for this is how God created us!) and it is the means by which God has communicated to us. Further, God has created us such that we are able to rely upon and function through spoken communication; it is not so inadequate that we are left confused and unable to act. Far from it! If spoken communication were this inadequate, then I’d be writing this post in vain! What I am trying to say is that there are limits to the spoken word; it is at these limits where music can carry spoken word to its intended end.
As I close, I can’t help but fear that some will interpret this post as saying something other than intend. That is, I feel that no matter how hard I try, I’m not clearly or sufficiently communicating what’s on my mind. Perhaps I need a song to couple my message… 😉