Science Fiction University:The Purpose of Art: Part Twelve: Listening to Music

Charlie W. Starr
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            There’s a uniqueness to music which makes it hard to pin down. Music expresses, but it doesn’t always express ideas. We will listen to music with lyrics differently than purely instrumental music. Where most other art enters our minds through the eyes, music enters through the ears. It’s unlike any other art form. How do we listen to it well?

The Sound of Silence

I’d start with a caution: perhaps we listen to too much. In C. S. Lewis’s Screwtape Letters, elder demon Screwtape explains that heaven is hateful to the demonic ear as a place of either silence or music. Hell, he says, is filled with wonderful noise. A hundred years ago, people didn’t have radios and record players (or CD’s or MP3 players). For most of human history, we’ve had long moments of silence available to us throughout any given day. In an electronic age, we can fill our ears with sounds on a constant basis, and even if we only listen to the purist, most noble, most Christian music, it is very possible that we may be listening too often. Even the best music can merely be noise when we use it to fill up the silence in which God might be trying to speak to us. Sometimes, the best thing we can do with music is turn it off.

Contradicting Myself

            For months now I’ve been talking about the importance of imaginative approaches to art, of experiencing the text, of avoiding the leap to analysis which reduces art to philosophical abstractions and life application statements. I would say the same thing here but not for long. We should definitely take music in, let it touch our imaginations, let it have an emotional effect on our hearts. We should delight in it, sing along with it, and even dance to it. But more than most of the other art forms, music has an ability to speak so directly to that “right brained” side of our thinking, that our analytical side can be circumvented and ignored.

            How long do you go before you finally “pay attention” to the lyrics of a song you’ve been listening to and try to figure out what they mean? How long before you notice that, whenever you’re feeling depressed, you choose to listen to a “playlist” of songs which reinforce your depression rather than move you out of it? My encouragement regarding music is that we move beyond experiential approaches to it (whether active or passive) and spend some time purposely analyzing what we listen to. This includes song lyrics (to which several things I covered under how to read poetry can be applied); however, music is more than lyrics and we should analyze it as well.

Some How To’s

            In part, spend some time thinking about how music affects you personally—your thoughts, feelings and attitudes. We ought to become aware of our own responses to music. This includes being aware of the memories and personal experiences we associate with various songs.

            Next, try following some suggestions a music teacher I know once taught me about how to get the most out of music:

  1. Music doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It’s linked to the culture and time in which it was created. So learn something about that culture and historical moment.
  2. There is a language to music. Notes become motifs which become phrases which become forms and compositions. Take music lessons and learn the vocabulary of the songs you’re listening to.
  3. Appreciate music as literature. Music has its counterparts to literary techniques: conflict, climax, development. Read music like you read a story.
  4. Appreciate music as biography: Bach began his works with a phrase in Latin which means, “To God alone be the glory.” When you learn about a composer or musician, you learn something about his music.
  5. Appreciate music as a companion to other arts. This is something easier to do with film which usually includes music. But you can, for example, listen to Chopin while looking at impressionist painters or to Bach while looking at Baroque architecture. Even contemporary pop music often has connections to other arts.

I’d say it’s also appropriate to analyze music by its elements (like I suggested last month with film). Pay attention to rhythm, melody, texture (how the sound of a song is layered, especially in its use of harmony), timbre (the tonal quality of the sound—think about the difference between a brass instrument and a woodwind), form (as in number two above), and dynamics.

Of all art forms, music may be the easiest to experience with all our heart but the most difficult to experience with all our mind. Listening with our whole self is the best way to experience music.

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