Towards a Christian Evaluation of Music: Let Us Be Active Listeners – Part 2

January 13, 2023 at 2:32 AM

     Last article, we introduced the idea of evaluating music as Christians and began a discussion of music evaluation with lyrical music. But lyrical music is not the end of the story. Lyrical music is the most common association with music today and is easily the music most of us listen to. Of course, there is another type of music: instrumental music. Sometimes, however, instrumental music gets put on the shelf to collect dust. Instrumental music (or, as you may hear nowadays, “classical music,” which is an oft-used synonym for old instrumental music) is connected with books for learning piano that are full of Bach and Beethoven and Mozart and are very technical and difficult to play and not nearly as pleasing to listen to as the songs we enjoy on Christian radio. Without doubt, instrumental music has taken the unpopular back seat to modern lyrical music.

    But let’s stop and consider something. Great classical[1] pieces have been around – and been beloved – for a long time. Perhaps there is something worth listening to in Bach and Beethoven. I may even submit to you that these spectacular instrumental works may be more edifying, in some ways, than much lyrical music. After all, instrumental music can just as well reflect God as lyrical music can.


Instrumental Music: Reflecting God’s Character and Creation

     Discussing lyrics is necessary and important, yet, a lyric without a melody is just poetry. Though often less considered than lyrics, melodies and harmonies deserve an equal evaluation. Criterion for judging songs musically would thus apply both to lyrical and instrumental music, for even lyrical music has melody and often harmony, but for the sake of ease and clarity, this paper will refer to criterion for “instrumental music” only.

    So once again, it is asked: how well does a given work reflect God? Music can certainly reflect many things – especially a worldview. Is that worldview reflective of how God has made the world? Is it portraying beauty and goodness? Such questions can, indeed, be approached objectively, and ought to be. For example, God  Himself is One in Three.[2] He has unity and diversity.[3] A work of music that repeats the same melody over and over again is full of unity, but is lacking diversity.[4] On the contrary, a work that changes keys and time signatures regularly and never repeats a pattern or sequence is full of diversity yet lacks unity. In each case, the music is not as beautiful as it could be, were unity and diversity present together.

     To illustrate using a different element of music, consider that dissonance (i.e., dis-harmony) is not reflective of God. Dissonance often sounds unpleasant to our ears, and while many will promote it today as a creative innovation in music, it cannot ultimately glorify God on its own. That being said, dissonance does indicate that we live in a fallen and broken world. A piece that starts and ends on dissonance with dissonance all throughout likely is communicating a hopeless brokenness to the world, which is not a Christian worldview at all. Because God has given hope in His Son, dissonance ought to be balanced by harmony.[5] Similarly, fragmentation in music may be warranted, but it cannot dominate throughout a whole piece. Tradition ought to be employed, but a piece whose author has mindlessly copied the work of previous musicians without exercising any creativity is hardly in line with how God has created us. All of these elements of music ought to be considered as they relate to God Himself. A piece need not perfectly balance unity and diversity, or dissonance and harmony, or fragmentation and perfection,[6] or tradition and creativity, or any other number of musical elements. Dissonance may be predominant and pre-eminent in a piece to suggest a Biblical view of reality, yet, there must be some measure of balance that points to who God is and how He made the world. And as these elements come together, pieces are more and more beautiful, for they are more and more reflective of the Beautiful One. And when beautiful pieces are considered as a whole body of work, a richer beauty and more profound message full of truth and goodness is communicated to the listeners. This is edifying for the believer; this is glorifying to God.


A Small Head Start with Instrumental Music

     Perhaps entering the world of instrumental music is daunting. Perhaps it feels unfamiliar and even dull or boring. I suggest that it is, in fact, not dull nor boring. Bach, Beethoven, and Mozart are household names for good reason! Below is a list of some more famous instrumental pieces. Perhaps, a sample of these works may help give a bit of a “head start” towards intaking good instrumental music.

Antonio Vivaldi – Four Seasons

Johann Sebastian Bach – Brandenburg Concertos (Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 in D Major, Allegro is particularly popular)

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart – A Little Night Music

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart – Symphony No. 40 in G Minor

Ludwig van Beethoven – a sample of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony

Ludwig van Beethoven – Ninth Symphony [7]

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky – The Nutcracker Ballet

Georges Bizet – Farandole

Antonín Dvorak – New World Symphony


Discernment and the Lordship of Christ

     Here we see a need for discernment. Christians ought to be discerning – especially when it comes to music. The very notion of a discerning Christian is brought about by the Lordship of Christ, for if Christ is not Lord, then there is no need for discernment: anything goes. Because Christ is Lord of the Christian, it becomes the Christian’s aim to give glory to God in all facets of his life – including musical evaluation. We must be active and discerning listeners to music, not passively intaking whatever we hear and accepting it. The past couple articles have argued that the most God-glorifying philosophy of evaluating music is discerning how a given work reflects who God is, what God has made, and how God has worked in history. Whether singing Be Thou My Vision, listening to Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, or hearing Somewhere Over the Rainbow, the aim must remain the same: glorify God by submitting to the Lord. God is glorified when His children evaluate works of fellow man in relation to the great Creator of all. Is God’s character reflected? Is His own design in creation mirrored? Is His work in redemptive history echoed? Without some sort of grounding in the Creator, music spirals into the meaningless, empty chaos produced so liberally in contemporary culture. But with a grounding in the Creator, one may be edified by a truly beautiful piece of music and, despite the inevitable humanness of the work, be led to conclude, “It is very good.”

[1] Technically, “classical music” is music written from 1750 to 1820 and includes famous composers Beethoven and Mozart. “Baroque music” is written from 1600 to 1750 and includes famous composers Vivaldi, Bach, and Handel. There are other periods and terms after classical music as well, though they are not particularly pertinent to this article.

[2] God’s Triunity is a possibility with the use of “us” in Gen. 1:26. It is more clearly revealed in passages such as John 16:12-15, Eph. 4:4-6, and 1 Pet. 1:2.

[3] God even instilled unity and diversity into the most foundational human-to-human relationship: marriage. Man and wife become one flesh with two persons. This is clarified from the very beginning; see Gen. 2:18-25.

[4] This is, in fact, one of the great pitfalls of contemporary music. Repeating a chorus, or a melody line, over and over is more stimulating to our flesh than it is glorifying to God, though. We may feel emotionally stirred after hearing a rousing 4th repeat of a chorus, but this does not mean we are truly edified nor that God delights in that particular music.

[5] The harmony God has put into the world may be seen spiritually, as God in Christ restores creation (Isa. 65:17; Rom. 5:12-21; 8:18-21) and as brothers dwell in unity (Ps. 133; Rom. 12:16; 15:5; Col. 3:14), and also naturally, as God puts patterns, symmetry, and symbiosis into the created world. In music patterns, symmetry, and themes may also communicate aspects of harmony.

[6] I.e., completeness.

[7] This could be one of the most popular classical works of all time.