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The Sound Of Music

Category Articles
Date March 1, 2000

The modern evangelical church does everything to music — even the sermon ends with soft chords and melodies from the organ. Music taps into an emotion a congregation is already feeling, and then manipulates it powerfully. City stores know the power of music to loosen the purse strings and open credit card wallets.

Psychologists are united in one belief that music speaks to the affections, and evidence suggests that it elicits emotion too. The evidence for this is scientifically demonstrative. A recent study at Cornell University showed that certain pieces of music induce actual physiological changes in the body. Music in minor key caused the pulse to slacken, the blood pressure to rise and the body temperature to drop, which is exactly what happens when a sense of sadness sets in. ‘Happy-clappy’ songs did the opposite, inducing a cheery feeling. Somehow, music can tap into sensitive emotional circuits. It arouses a state.

The danger is that the preacher announces to the congregation that the sad feelings are the evidence of the special blessing of the Holy Spirit convicting them of sin, and the happy feelings are the result of the Holy Spirit giving them assurance that they are real Christians. This is suggested everywhere, and so the talk of the Holy Spirit’s presence and work in these congregations is confident and perplexing.

Making music has all the hallmarks of being adaptive behaviour, that is, the activity is part of developing sexuality when young people in every kind of society display themselves as ready for finding a partner. So the women posture and sing, and the men play the instruments, especially the drums and guitars. Such musical talents announce that they have covetable qualities for any mate. They have the mental competence to learn notes and lyrics; the social intelligence required to be part of a band and to co-operate, literally harmoniously, with other people. ‘We have creativity and energy,’ they are saying.

A musical psychologist from Leicester University, Dr Adrian North, surveyed Staffordshire teenagers last year about the kind of music they listened to and why. The girls listened to music to influence their mood. The boys listened to it as a way of impressing their friends. For them it was a badge of identity in telling people about who you are.

An individual’s choice of music directly influences attractiveness. If you say you like the modern hymn-writer Graham Kendrick then many girls will find you more attractive than if you say you liked Isaac Watts or Augustus Toplady.

Steven Pinker, the American psychologist, believes music simply exists as an ‘auditory cheesecake.’ It is a confection of sounds that tickles faculties which our brain already possesses. ‘Songs with lyrics appeal to a brain already attuned to language; the ear is sensitive to harmonies, and sounds in the natural world, such as bird song and even thunder, echo such harmonies. We derive pleasure from patterns and rhythms, and repetitive sounds appeal to the ear in the same way that a repeated doodle appeals to the eye’ (Anjana Ahuju, ‘Why We are Touched by the Sound of Music’, The Times, February 23, 2000).

How does music move us? In February a report from scientists from the University of Manchester revealed that loud music stimulates a part of the inner ear called the sacculus, which is connected to the hypothalamus — the brain’s ‘pleasure centre.’ This could explain why music is evocative and enjoyable. The sacculus responds only to music, which suggests why music, and not other forms of sounds such as the exhortations of the man who is preaching to us, inspires such feelings.

A book was published in 1993 entitled Music and Morals: a Theological Appraisal of the Moral and Psychological Effects of Music written by a Catholic priest, named Basil Cole. In his earlier days he was an instrumentalist who played jazz and variations on that form of music. He wrote this book with the perspective of one who was a musician and understands well the effects which music has upon listeners. He contends that music is not neutral, that there is a morality in it. He analyses the thought of such ancient writers as Plato, Aristotle, Confucius, to show that they all believed that music in its various forms had an effect upon a person’s psyche, and that it could have a good or a bad effect. The book is brief, about 140 pages in length. Setting aside our contention with the Catholic system and with the priesthood, his insights are helpful.

Why do certain churches have so much singing? It is not that ‘God has been restoring music to his church,’ that was the propaganda of ten years ago given out by young musicians to intimidate preachers and congregations into increasing the amount of songs in the services. The real reason was the ego-boosting of Spring Harvest music, and a lot of new songs around. From all that there developed a new ‘priesthood’ of girl singers and boy players lining up in front of the congregation and marginalising preaching, praying, and the public reading of the Scriptures. These enthusiasts attracted others.

They saw themselves as a new sort of Levitical priesthood raised up by God to deliver his church from its bondage. They were the ‘creative people,’ so different from the rest of us. If the church asks fundamental questions about the legitimacy of this group of under 30’s strutting their stuff in front of a congregation for such a long time they get deeply wounded and call for secret prayer meetings to resist those who are ‘opposing God’ in the congregation.

Ian D. Elsasser has written in a personal letter to the author, ‘In my disagreement with the contemporary trends in music — bands, excessive choruses, etc. — I often tell and remind people that I myself am a musician, that I spent my teen years in a Baptist Church which used this in its evening service, and that I myself not only participated in various ways but also assisted a church to develop this form of “worship.” I have come to the conclusion that I cannot with good conscience encourage this to be the method for worship during the Sunday services of the church. There is a place for the use of choruses in the life of the church, and the church should seek “good” modern hymns which reflect the biblical teaching and a sound outlook from the perspective of faith, but the whole worship team ethos and the overtaking of the services with it will prove detrimental in the long run. May the Lord, in is mercy and for the glory of His name, save the churches from the harm which they are bringing upon themselves and bequeathing to the next generation who will lack the good judgment needed to direct the affairs of the church in a biblical fashion.’

The sober hymn-writer, Chris Idle, comments, ‘Just as both Jewish priests and Roman Catholic ones saw themselves as vital to the whole show, including our very access to God himself, so now music comes to dominate our gatherings, our listening and our budget. The musicians speak, dress and pose accordingly. Music becomes the new way to God’s real presence; no wonder the apostles made such a hash of things.’

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