Church Music

At a rehearsal this week for the church band – of which I am a member – there was a discussion about a few churchgoers who, having seen the new acoustic devices mounted along the walls of the sanctuary, are concerned with the volume of the band. When this information reached the ears of the various musicians that make up the band, the reaction was nearly in unison: these complainers need to stop complaining; louder music is here, it’s good, and it’s here for good.

Nearly in unison, because I dissented, although I didn’t make my opinion known. Since I had not thought through what precisely had led me to disagree, I felt it best to refrain from saying from what would have been an enjoyable thing to say: I’m the band’s lone and proud curmudgeon.

Aside from the obvious critique of “louder is better”, which is simply that such a statement is not an argument, there seems to be a deeper response available.

Beauty is objective, but our experience of it is subjective. Put into more common language, “beauty is in the eye of the beholder, if and only if the beholder is a neophyte”. Just as with good food, good art becomes easier to distinguish as one learns how to do the work of making the right distinctions. This is not a popular opinion today. In fact, the idea of purely subjective art is ubiquitous in art schools. Such art schools seem to be blinded to the contradiction of teaching a topic that is purely subjective. What can be learned if a person already possesses the fullest possible extent of understanding?

We seem to have no problem of objectivity when it comes to food. Children want McDonalds because McDonalds tastes good to their unrefined taste buds. This is not to say that McDonalds should never be consumed by adults. However, an adult should be able to tell the difference between a Big Mac with Coke and a $50 cut of steak with a $20 glass of wine.

This is not to say that good art is impossible to tell from bad art for a novice. In fact, just the opposite is true for those who study in modern art schools. As they grow in subjective nonsense, they become unable to make distinctions that are obvious to novices. If art schools taught beauty instead of ugliness, then students of such schools would be able to see beauty in ever more profound ways. Instead, it is the average person walking through an art museum on a day of free admission that is better equipped to tell the difference between beauty and ugliness. A trained artist will see an empty canvas and marvel, while a tourist will laugh. The artist will see the tourist as uncultured; the tourist will see the artist as an idiot. Neither is far off from the truth, but the culture the artist prides himself in is a dead and dying culture, and the tourist is all the better having never been inculcated with the same nonsense.

But all of this is a little off-topic. To summarize: Beauty is objective, primarily, and an understanding of beauty can be increased over time, just as an appreciation for good food can.

What does all of this have to do with a church band and loud music?

Loud music, especially with a driving beat, is the very definition of modern pop music. It’s also what most of the members of the band prefer. The volume and driving beat combine to produce a powerful reaction which seems irresistible. It leaves me bored.

In the past year, I’ve listened to more Bach than any other Christian music combined. Eine Feste Burg (A Mighty Fortress) has been my favorite cantata. Yet, if any of the other members of the band were to listen to the Chorale, it would sound a bit like a cacophony. It isn’t a cacophony, but with so many independent musical forces moving together, it is a little difficult to put things into the right acoustic places. It would leave the rest of the band bored.

How could two completely different styles of music leave people bored if beauty is objective?

It takes work – lots of work – to appreciate older forms of music. It takes time to acquire the taste, and faith along the way to know that a deep appreciation is in store. Despite growing up encouraged to listen to classical music, it was a boring chore for me to listen to Bach consistently for the first time. The immediate gratification of loud, driving rhythms simply doesn’t exist in anything he wrote, but this gratification in modern popular music is like eating a McDonalds combo: it satisfies, but only barely.

I think that what is boring for the rest of the band, and for most people in the West today, is working towards seeing greater beauty in more fundamentally beautiful music. I think what is boring for me is repetitive loudness.

Perhaps thinking of things this way makes me come across as an elitist, but it isn’t intended to. Instead, my goal is to show how people – Christians who believe in a Beautiful God in particular – ought not to settle for cheap, instant gratification. It takes work to appreciate beauty if you are expecting something quickly, but that work pays off.

 

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