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A Biblical Theology of Music (part one)

Excerpt from my doctoral dissertation on the Theology of Music, written at Dallas Theological Seminary 2011.


Ultimately music is a gift. As with any gift, the more we learn to value, use and understand it, the more we may learn about the nature and preferred way of working of the one who has given it. Presents are expressive of the presenter; and for many people music is foremost among those gifts of creation that serve to render the character of God.[1]

This section looks at the elements for building a biblical theology of music so that musicians can have a firm foundation for their engagement in culture.[2] Music can be defined in simple terms.[3] It is the combination of rhythm, melody, harmony and tone color. It is impossible to have music without these elements. Rhythm makes music possible to be understood and enjoyed as the beat takes the listener on a journey to comprehend the time sequence of each bar.

Jeremy Begbie notes, “Music is involved in an especially intense way with time, to a degree unparalleled in any other form. This is because it does not simply take time; notes are critically timed in relation to one another (even in improvised music), creating very specific patterns…The timing of notes relative to one another is fundamental to what music is.”[4] Melody is the selection of notes out of the twelve tones of a chromatic scale to order and sequence them in such a way that it makes a unique melody. Harmony is the art of putting tones together to occupy the same space and time simultaneously on a journey through minor and major chords being taken from consonance to dissonance to consonance and giving the participant the feeling of equilibrium, tensions and resolutions. Begbie observes:

This ETR (equilibrium-tension-resolution) pattern works in many different ways and at many different levels, potentially engaging every dimension of music. ETR patterns accumulate to give music a forward-moving feel…It drives toward future rest and closure, often (but not always) leading to some kind of goal or gathering together of musical process. We sense it is going somewhere. We are made to expect, and often to want, future sounds.[5]

Tone color, or timbre, can be added to these three elements. Tone color is “that quality of sound produced by a particular medium of musical tone production,” says well-known composer, Aaron Copeland.[6] This mystic combination of rhythm, melody, harmony and tone color has had an incredible effect on the human mind and soul. The words of Herbert Lockyer, Jr. give a taste of the effects music has had on humans:

What is this mystery that gives flight to the imagination, touches the deepest emotions, and speaks to the soul? From poets and mystics to saints and sinners, from antiquity to the immediacy of each breath we take, music communicates when words cannot.[7]

The Oxford Universal Dictionary defines music as, “that one of the fine arts which is concerned with the combination of sounds with a view of beauty or form and the expression of thought or feeling.”[8] As fine art, music is classed with painting, sculpture, architecture and design. Yet music commands its own peculiar field. Archibald Davidson says, “You cannot analyze music as you would a picture or a statue or a building; you must apprehend music at the very second of its passing.”[9] The uniqueness of listening to music is that it is like experiencing moving art. The listener flows with it, and he does not know where it is going to take him.

Even in the days of great philosophers such as Aristotle, Plato and Socrates, there was a profound understanding and respect for the remarkable influence music could have on its listeners. Aristotle believed that music was not only to be used in education. He emphasized its power, offering of pleasure, peace and harmony, and even the authority it has to shape a person’s character. He writes:

As music is one of those things which are pleasant, and as virtue itself consists in rightly enjoying, loving, and hating, it is evident that we ought not to learn or accustom ourselves to anything so much as to judge right and rejoice in honorable manners and noble actions. But anger and mildness, courage and modesty, and their contraries, as well as all other dispositions of the mind, are most naturally imitated by music and poetry; which is plain by experience, for when we hear these our very soul is altered…From what has been said it is evident what influence music has over the disposition of the mind, and how variously it can fascinate it: and if it can do this, most certainly it is what youth ought to be instructed in.[10]

As Aristotle observed the effect of music on the human soul, so Plato observed the effect music had on society in his day. He sounds like a modern-day philosopher when he writes, “In order to take the spiritual temperature of an individual or society, one must mark the music.” He also understood the significance of “musical training while still in the time of youth, even before he is able to know the reason why.”[11] Socrates, who also had a positive view of music, even warns about the power of music when he writes, “Any musical innovation is full of danger to the whole state, and ought to be prohibited . . . when modes of music change, the fundamental laws of the state always change with them.”[12]

What was true in ancient days is also true today. The power of music as an instrument for the desensitizing and conditioning of modern society cannot be underestimated. Today MTV, YouTube, iTunes and the iPod shape the values of most people in their teens and twenties. Begbie says, “Not only is music ubiquitous, it is powerful: creating moods, evoking memories and images, uniting people, and providing an outlet of expression for even the most tone deaf among us.”[13] Among the arts music is still the primary communicator of values to the younger generation. Therefore, music is a force that cannot be ignored or dismissed.

The Bible is full of references to music. God touches the human soul, speaks to the human heart and reveals himself to the human mind in many different ways. Niniger describes God’s gift of music and how it is evident in every area of life:

Music is God’s gift to all mankind. It is the language of the soul. It is spontaneous. Every emotion of the human heart finds expression through music, from its deepest sorrows to its highest joys. The infant child is lulled to sleep with tender song. Boys and girls experience music from the days of kindergarten to those of high school graduation. Marriages take place to its beautiful strains. Music stirs the soldier trudging wearisome miles. Its ministry embraces all who in the sunset of life find solace in well-remembered music of another day.[14]

For the Christian, music is one of God’s ways to build an intimate relationship. It is like learning a new language. Learning a new language enables people to discover more about the world. The process of learning new words and understanding new grammar is difficult, but it takes people to places they have never been before. It is like learning the huge range of words for “love” in Greek, each referring to a different type. Learning a new language and getting inside the nuances of that language brings discernment and understanding. Musical language has the same effect. Allen and Borror write:

It would be difficult to overstate the power of the musical language. It has emotional-mental stimulation unmatched by any other means of communication…God gave us this gift of music that we might develop it and use it to express our creativity in praise and worship.[15]

One essential reason God created musical language is to deepen relationships between creator/composer, performer/musician and listener/audience. First composers create music in their minds and then write it on paper. Performers perform the music that originated in the composer. As performers express the music through their own feelings, interpretation and phrasing, listeners experience the composer and performer in their unique way. Thus there is formed a relationship between composers, performers and listeners.

This truth comes to light through the psalmist who sings, “Sing to him a new song; play skillfully, and shout for joy” (Ps 33:3). The psalmist is recognizing the relationship of vocalists (“sing to him”), composers (“a new song”), instrumentalists (“play skillfully”), and audiences (“shout for joy”). There is a deep sense in which there is a profound relationship between the divine Artist—God, and human artists—musicians, that has to be there before the art can be taken further. In a sense it is as if artists are invited to take part in a divine and mysterious relationship with the Creator. In 1999, Pope John Paul II wrote a letter to artists. In the opening lines he writes these words:

None can sense more deeply than you artists, ingenious creators of beauty that you are, something of the pathos with which God at the dawn of creation looked upon the work of his hands. A glimmer of that feeling has shone so often in your eyes when—like the artists of every age—captivated by the hidden power of sounds and words, colors and shapes, you have admired the work of your inspiration, sensing in it some echo of the mystery of creation with which God, the sole creator of all things, has wished in some way to associate you.[16]

In this letter, John Paul II inspires artists to look beyond the creativity of their own hands to see the deeper relationship between themselves and the Creator God—the most prized piece of art.

Another essential reason God gave musical language is conversation, which makes relationships even deeper. As an Artist, God speaks through music to touch the innermost strings of the heart. Music has the ability to move the consciousness of man because it has the ability to communicate ideas and thus speak a language. This language is unique because within Scripture, God reveals himself through unspoken but real revelations. Astley, Savage and Hone write, “Music may also serve as an appropriate model for divine revelation, giving us glimpses of ‘other worlds’ and a sense of the ineffable, while communicating truths that are often too deep for words and even disclosing aspects of God.”[17] In this conversation, however, God uses words also.

Jeremy Begbie notes, “Music is attracted to words and words are one of the most irrepressible partners of music.”[18] This is precisely where music has such a large role as a vehicle of God’s revelation of himself. Music is a gift of God and is part of the general revelation, while the incarnation of Christ Jesus and Scriptures are God’s special revelations of himself. Music thus becomes a carrier of the message about God’s special revelation by pointing to the truth of Scripture and to the person of Jesus Christ. The great missionary movements in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries used music and songs to communicate the gospel to people who could neither read nor write, and the message goes straight to their hearts because the language barriers were taken away.

The music in the voice of the singer just as much as the voice of the preacher continue to spread the gospel and Christ’s teaching through the villages and cities of unreached continents. Music is God’s way to enter into an intimate relationship with true conversation. This should give musicians a desire to look deeper into this relationship.

(to be continued)


[1] Jess Astley, Timothy Hone and Mark Savage, eds. “Music and Theology,” in Creative Chords: Studies in Music, Theology and Christian Formation (Herefordshire, UK: Gracewing, 2000), 241.

[2] For definitions on key terms see Appendix 5: Key Terms and Definitions.

[3] All music has a melodic line of some sort, even it is not an attractive melody. Even a single drum beating has a melody, a single monotonous tone of the instrument itself. Of course, the pitch can be varied according to the tightness of the skin on the drum. The tone color tells what instrument is being played. Of all the elements of music, only harmony is an option, because it is added to music for depth, color, richness, and complexity. Of the musical elements harmony is the most sophisticated. Early harmony was a reproduction of the melody line, a particular interval above or below it. It illustrates how harmony is achieved in music: by having a second melody occurring together with the first. This was achieved, however, by following certain rules: the second melody could occur at a restricted range of intervals above or below the original melodic line. The intervals were two only: the fourth and the fifth. The introduction of the more colorful thirds and sixths came much later, thus forming the basis for music as it is today (see article by Ian Hodge “Understanding the Rules of Music,” Reformation of the Arts and Music: An Exploration of the Arts, Music, and the Christian Worldview, August 1992, (accessed November 2009). For a further study of musical “tone,” “motion,” “time” and “space,” see Victor Zuckerkandl, Sound and Symbol: Music and the External World (New York: Bollingen Foundation, 1956); see also further discussion by the same author in his book, The Sense of Music (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1958) where he touches on “melody,” “texture and structure,” “meter and rhythm,” “polyphony,” “harmony,” “melody and harmony.” See also Robert Sholl, ed., Messiaen Studies (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2007) on French composer Oliver Messiaen who was one of the major figures on twentieth-century music. See also Glen Haydon, Introduction to Musicology: A Survey of the Fields, Systematic and Historical, of Musical Knowledge & Research (New York: Prentice-Hall, 1941). See also Jeremy S. Begbie, Theology, Music and Time (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2000) and Resounding Truth: Christian Wisdom in the World of Music (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academics, 2007). See especially chapters 8-11on the technical side of music as it relates to theology.

[4] Jeremy Begbie, Resounding Truth, 220.

[5] Jeremy Begbie, Resounding Truth, 278.

[6] Aaron Copeland, What to Listen for in Music (New York: Penguin Group, 2002), 56.

[7] Herbert Lockyer, Jr. All the Music of the Bible: An Exploration of Musical Expression in Scripture and Church Hymnody (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2004), xi.

[8] William Little, The Oxford Universal Dictionary (Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press, 1955), 1300.

[9] Archibald Davidson, Church Music (Cambridge, UK: Harvard University Press, 1960), 6.

[10] Aristotle, The Politics, trans. T. A. Sinclair, rev. T. J. Saunders (London, UK: Penguin, 1981), ch. 5-7.

[11] Plato, The Republic of Plato, trans. Benjamin Jowett (Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press, 1888), 88.

[12] Aristotle, The Politics, 466.

[13] Begbie, Resounding Truth, back cover.

[14] Ruth Niniger, Church Music Comes of Age (New York, NY: Carl Fisher, 1957), 1.

[15] Ronald Allen and Bordon Borror, Worship: Redisvcovering the Missing Jewel (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2000), 160.

[16] Pope John Paul II, “Letter to Artists: To All Who are Passionately Dedicated to the Search for New “Epiphanies” of Beauty so that Through their Creative Work as Artists, They May Offer These as Gifts to the World,” Libreria Editrice Vaticana, (April 4, 1999).

[17] Astley, Savage and Hone, Creative Chords, 240.

[18] Jeremy Begbie, “Theology Transposed: Re-Discovering the Gospel Through the Arts,” (lecture, Reagent College Summer School, Vancouver, B.C., Canada, July 31-August 4, 2006).

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