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Welcome to my blog, MB's Theological Thoughts. If you have a question you'd like me to answer, feel free to ask, either in a comment or an email. If it's a legitimate question, I'll do my best to answer it. Might take some thinking and some time, but again, I'll do my best.

17 November, 2010

The Ins and Outs of Music.

I'm not going to give you a college-level music theory course in this article, but I'm rather going to note some major disagreements with regards to music theory, and then explain how they have changed. Then I'm going to note some current disagreements in the Adventist church and state my opinions. Bear in mind that I am studying music and therefore know more than those who just repeat things they've heard. But neither am I as much of an expert as somebody who has written their dissertation on the subject. Nonetheless, this will be a long article.

From the beginning, music theory has been more of a set of rules and guidelines for the creation of music or a set of explanations for how and why certain musical idioms work. Music theory has always had a philosophical branch. But that philosophy changes with the times. In the early Church, music was unaccompanied, borrowing largely from Platonic thought. It was created a certain way, and any change was considered a corruption of the sacred melody. This was what brought about the rise of notation: the need for uniformity. But this has changed drastically: arrangement is increasingly popular and original composition seems to be falling out of style due to a certain stigma I've noticed among many amateur musicians that classical music is boring, for the rich, stuck up, et cetera. The vast majority of composition seems to be focused on popular music, the modern-day troubadour song, if you will.

Another thing that has changed drastically is the use of the Devil's Interval, the tritone. Even until the Baroque period, the tritone was considered evil. 1200 years ago, if a tritone was sounded, not just during the worship service, but any time in song, everything was stopped. Exorcisms were performed. Prayers were recited for the blessing of God. But the tritone is a crucial part of a crucial chord, the Dominant 7th. This chord is found everywhere, even in church. It has been used since baroque times as a color and has become accepted without a second thought.

It seems that every new addition to music theory has met with some resistance. When Mozart wrote his Musical Joke, a four-movement work that predated the work of Peter Schickele by nearly two hundred years, people didn't know what to think of it. When Beethoven emphasized harmonic and rhythmic content rather than a melody, people were outraged and called it noise, of all things! Imagine Beethoven being called unmusical! The same is true today. Contemporary Christian music traces its roots all the way back to the beginnings of rock music in the early twentieth century. As popular music evolved, so did Christian music. The song Turn! Turn! Turn! by The Byrds is straight out of Scripture. After that, people like Keith Green and Amy Grant were forerunners in shaping the way Christian music is today. Amy Grant especially fell under critics' fire when she did some music for the mainstream market. I personally believe that is the reason she is such a well rounded musician: she wasn't afraid of writing songs about life.

This criticism of new addition leads into some modern versions of the theoretical disagreements in the early Church. The current disagreements in SDA church music are focused primarily around two things: 1) instrumentation and style; and 2) lyrical content. Let's hear some from the con-argument regarding instrumentation.
I don't think getting up front and strumming the guitar is actual music. If you're going to learn an instrument, you need to do it properly. - Opinionated Organist

The reason we shouldn't allow drums up front is that they come out of the Jazz and Rock and Roll traditions, which use them to evoke the power of Satan. - Consummate Conservative

Lyrics are never the focus of rock music. The beat is always the focus, and in rock, unlike *classical* music, it places the emphasis on 2 and 4. This changes brain wave patterns to produce the same waves that happen during SEXUAL INTERCOURSE. - Mr. Know-It-All

Electric guitars distort and pollute the sound, so we should never use them. God likes only pure and soft sound and calm music. - Never Nothin' but Nylon
These arguments are all fallacious in some way. Some of them, such as the one presented by Mr. Know-It-All, reflect a total lack of theoretical knowledge and a proclivity misinterpreting or spouting quotations from biased studies. Never Nothin' but Nylon (hereafter known as Brother N) discounts the electric guitar as an separate entity and compares it with his own instrument. Consummate Conservative (Brother C hereafter) cites history, yet discounts culture, while ordaining one style of music and condemning another like Brother N. And finally, Opinionated Organist (Brother O hereafter) argues that only one technique is viable even when it may not be appropriate.

Let's start with the first argument. Brother O insists that the strumming of a guitar with a plectrum (pick) is lazy, improper technique. This can be refuted with a simple glance at the piano's function in hymnody: to perform harmonic and rhythmic accompaniment. The guitar in many worship bands has fulfilled this purpose while the piano has become a device for ornamentation and color. Regarding strumming and pick usage, music history has our answer. The guitar is descended probably from the lute, descended from the Arabic oud. Historically as well as today, the primary means of sounding the strings on a lute-like instrument has been...what's this? A plectrum! Along the same lines, strumming is nothing more than a rhythmic arpeggiation of chords. Where do we see that? The harp, violin family, piano, organ, harpsichord and many others. It's a technique that is as old as the Early Baroque at least. But it seems our stigma centered around rhythm, liveliness and syncopation has given us blinders, endorsing the traditional SDA musical tradition and throwing everything else away.

Second, Brother C states in a roundabout way that the usage of drums is the invocation of the Devil. This is born of a logical fallacy mixed in with a disregard for cultural difference in music. Bother C notes that the usage of drums in modern Christian music traces its roots to the Jazz and Rock and Roll traditions, which in turn trace their roots back to a blending of African music with European music. While it is true that in some traditions, such as SanterĂ­a, the usage of rhythm can be used to invoke "evil spirits". But that does not mean that drums are intrinsically evil. Why do the rhythms of witch doctors and SanterĂ­a practitioners call upon the spirits and idols? It's because that is their intent. Percussion instruments aren't evil, of course; they've been in widespread use in symphony orchestras for centuries. Psalm 150 call us to praise God with crashing cymbals (check, check and check), tambourines, trumpets: all of them loud instruments!

Think back to the contest on Mt. Carmel. Elijah and the prophets of Ba'al squared off in a dead heat to prove whose god was true: Jehovah or Ba'al. Each side used prayer to try and invoke their deity. When the prayers of supplication to Ba'al didn't work, his priests and prophets began to get louder. They shouted in frustration, still trying to invoke their god. They cut themselves and danced around the altar, desperate to get his attention. One could argue that this indicates shouting to God and dancing before him are evil, but again, they are not intrinsically evil when we use basic exegesis. The target of invocation was not Jehovah, but Ba'al. Elijah's target of invocation was Jehovah, the one true God, and he had found favor with God as evidenced by the fireball that burned up the altar to the Lord as well as all the water in the trenches around it.

We use drums for a different purpose than what many Adventists claim is intrinsic within them. In classical music, they are used as a musical color and an instrument to provide rhythm, as they were used to provide a solid beat for a troupe of laborers in ancient times. In modern music, they fulfill a similar purpose: to serve as a rhythmic device and a musical color. The purpose for which contemporary Christian musicians use drums is clearly a repudiation of Brother C's argument.

Mr. Know-it-all presents what seems to some like a valid argument, one used quite often to demonize rock music as being disorderly and harmful to the body. But it suffers from two fallacies: first, that the argument is formed by citing studies based around "soft" scientific evidence such as observation that has no concrete explanation. Secondly, the brain-wave pattern studies are largely correlative, not necessarily showing a causal relationship. The questionability of these studies also stems from the fact that they seem to me to be biased in their hypotheses and result sets. Never have I seen a music EEG study cited that does anything but demonize rock and glorify Mozart and Bach. What about other genres? We have Chant, Renaissance motets and chansons, the Romantic Era of classical music, 12-tone music, neo-classical, and so on and so forth. Yes, the genres are diverse enough that we can't study all of them, but it doesn't seem fair that the only two ever used are Rock and the Baroque and Classical periods in classical music. While I can neither prove nor refute the argument with my knowledge alone, it holds little water until more extensive research is found. Citing somebody who says rock music congeals raw eggs like hard-boiling based on something he heard is hardly my idea of empirical, scholarly research.

My second point of contention with Mr. Know-it-all's argument is that he says syncopation is intrinsically evil. He says that rock music takes the accent of the beat and places it on beats two and four, rather than on beats one and three. But what he fails to see is the theory behind the rock beat. I have studied this rhythm for years on top of all my formal theory instruction and will say here and now that he is wrong in this. In shortest terms, the rock beat is the same in accent as a classical 4/4. The emphasis lies with the kick drum, and the release with the snare. Look at it as a rubber band: the strong beat imparts tension, stretching the band. The weak beat releases it with the snap of the snare drum. The beater is buried in the kick drum, whereas the stick bounces off the snare. Mr. Know-it-all is overanalyzing things, making them means to an end, when the answer is that nothing has changed rhythmically.

Finally we have Brother N's argument. He doesn't believe that the electric guitar is a legitimate instrument because its sound is distorted electronically and is therefore impure. While the initial distortion of the guitar may or may not have been accidental, it has nonetheless become desirable. The beauty of the electric guitar is that it is amplified and can be heard much easier by many more people, and that it has its unique tone palette. Its signal can be unaltered, distorted, overdriven, modulated with several kinds of effects, made to sound akin to almost any instrument through MIDI and sythesizers...the possibilities are endless. Each instrument has its own unique sound, and trying to replace an electric guitar with an acoustic guitar (and vice versa) while retaining the same role is ludicrous. It's like trying to replace a trumpet with a flugelhorn or a cornet and getting the exact same sound. It's not possible due to timbre differences between the instruments, just like the timbre differences between acoustic and electric instruments. It's still sound production; it's just achieved through a different means.

Brother N uses his own personal taste to condemn what he doesn't like. When this principle is applied toward religion, it's called intolerance. When it's applied toward skin color, it's called racism. I don't like the tone quality of the Serpent, a Baroque predecessor of the tuba, but I don't condemn it as evil! The Bible instructs us not to place curses on things, for only God has the power of judgment (Proverbs 10:31, Matthew 7:1, Romans 12:14, 1 Peter 1:15, to name a few); yet, it seems that prominent figures in the Seventh-day Adventist Church have placed curses (imposed sanctions, if you will) on trivial matters such as diet, the wearing of jewelry, music, tattoos, the observance of Sabbath.... When personal taste becomes tradition becomes dogma, we start to see a legalism reminiscent of the Pharisees.

All these cases identify the weaknesses in arguments against certain types of music, while pointing out that the "holy genres of music" are not divinely appointed by Scripture, but in fact come from tradition and taste. It's like the "liturgy" of Seventh-day Adventism, the program order, meeting time, and offering calendar: none of those are divinely appointed in the pages of Scripture. They are created as organizational structures by human beings. If anything, Scripture encourages jubilant praise (Psalm 150)! What it condemns is empty, worthless prayers that place focus on self (Matthew 7). It condemns the worship of idols (yes, I'm saying it) such as hymns. We should be lamenting the apathetic nature of our modern hymnal performance, not condemning jubilant praise as chaotic and not solemn! Solemn in this context is a synonym of contrite, not somber, yet we insist on mumbling through "Redeemed, How I Love to Proclaim It!" like it's a dirge. God wants us to be happy. He wants us to rejoice. When did music change from honey on the rim of a medicine cup to the bitter herbs of a Passover Seder? We'll go into it next week, and then I'll discuss doing the same thing that tropes did in the Middle Ages: augmenting the music and making it better.

Your Brother in Christ,

*This is the fourth of a series of articles about music in the SDA Church and other denominations. Next Friday: Modern-day Tropes, dredging up ancient history*

All Scripture references, unless otherwise noted, are taken from the New King James Version, © Thomas Nelson, Inc. 

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