How Does the Music Sound?

Timothy and Lou Ann Shafer

New Horizons: April 2010


Also in this issue

Why God Wants Us to Sing

Putting Death to Death!

Skipping Chapel

The Apostles' Creed, Part 2: I Believe in Jesus Christ

The Bible mentions music in more than six hundred passages throughout its pages. In a great number of these references, Scripture connects the use of music to human emotion. For example, 1 Samuel 16 tells us that when David played his harp, it brought relief to Saul, made him feel better, and the evil spirit would leave him.

In 1 Chronicles, the leaders of the Levites are told to appoint their brothers to sing joyful songs. The Israelites were to celebrate with songs, harps, lyres, tambourines, cymbals, and trumpets. We read elsewhere that flutes were used not only when rejoicing and making merry, but also when wailing. Harps, in addition to being used for celebration, were also used during times of lament and mourning. From Exodus through Revelation, trumpets express fear, anguish, and the agony of battle, as well as joy and rejoicing; they also accompany singing about God's love and goodness.

Our own experience bears out these biblical truths; we hear instruments used in a variety of ways to express emotion, and we hear the human voice in song communicating pleasure and sorrow, joy and pain, triumph and nostalgia. We often say that we have been moved by listening to a song, or that we are touched by the performance of a piece of music. How does music make so many emotional connections with human beings, and what is the significance of this for the church?

The capacity of music to move us emotionally involves many variables, but it can be broadly categorized in two ways. First, music has intrinsic qualities in its sounds that communicate various motions, which people connect with various emotions. Second, music communicates to individuals according to their own experiences and associations with that music.

The Intrinsic Model

The first category is often called the intrinsic model, the inherent model, or the bioacoustic model of communication. In this model, music reaches the human ear and communicates some type of motion to the mind. For example, speed (fast or slow) and direction (up or down) can be communicated by such properties of sound as rhythm, tempo, articulation, meter, melodic interval, and harmonic progression. Simply put, fast notes are heard as fast motion. When these notes are next to each other, the mind might well perceive the sound as running; when fast notes are further apart from each other, other types of fast motion might be suggested to the mind, depending on the distance between the fast notes.

A good example of this is skipping. When a person skips, the feet hit the floor in a long-short pattern, where the duration of the long is roughly twice that of the short. Also, each foot takes turns touching the floor twice before the other foot touches. So when a composer wants to create the sound of a skipping motion, the rhythm of the notes must be long-short, long-short, long-short, where each long is about twice as long as the short. To evoke the skipping motion even more accurately, each long note should be the same pitch as the subsequent short note—representing the same foot touching the ground twice before the other foot does. Performed at the right speed, this sound communicates the motion of skipping.

The connection between motion and emotion in individuals is another link in the process of musical communication. (Notice the etymological link between the words motion and emotion.) We demonstrate our feelings in the outward expression of physical motion. In fact, Merriam-Webster's dictionary includes in the definition of emotion the idea of a feeling accompanied by physiological and behavioral changes. The feeling of sadness, for example, brings with it downward, smooth, and slow motion. Very often, we can spot a sad person simply by means of his body language. This is universally true—both cross-culturally and from generation to generation.

The Bible acknowledges the principle of the physical manifestation of emotion, using language that describes the body's physical response when referring to the feeling of sadness. In feeling the absence of the Lord in Psalm 42, the psalmist tells us in verse 5 that his soul is "downcast." In 1 Samuel 1:18, Hannah, having passed through a period of sadness characterized by weeping, anguish, grief, and deep trouble, is said to show a face that is no longer "downcast" when Eli blesses her. Shortly after this, when circumstances have improved, her "horn is lifted high" in her rejoicing (2:1). In like manner, rising is linked with exaltation in Isaiah 33:10, where the Lord says, "Now will I arise.... Now will I be exalted; now will I be lifted up."

Returning to our example of skipping, it is unimaginable that anyone whose soul is downcast would engage in this motion. Skipping is an activity for happy people. Feelings of exuberance, joy, lightheartedness, and happiness might well manifest themselves in the physical act of skipping. When music represents this motion in sound, the mind perceives the motion and translates it into appropriate emotions that correlate to the motion. The body may even be induced to skip by the sound of the motion. Music, in this way, can evoke in the listener the emotion it is communicating through its elements. Hence, we feel "moved" by the music.

The possibilities for expressing emotion through sound are endless. Composers use musical tools such as pitch, harmony, mode, register, tempo, texture, rhythm, direction, duration, dynamics, articulation, timbre, etc., in combinations that suggest motions which in turn correlate (sometimes roughly, sometimes rather specifically) to the physical motions that we make when we feel a certain way.

Emotions themselves range from simple to extraordinarily complex. Simple emotions often mix together to form more complex emotions. By mixing various elements of sound together in differing proportions, music is capable of evoking an enormous variety of both simple and complex emotions. For example, composers frequently provide simultaneous melodic lines to produce complex affects—each line with different motion characteristics, thus coloring joy with struggle, or lament with hope. In this intrinsic model of musical communication, combinations of intricate musical cues for motion are found in the musical notation left by the composer.

A couple of examples of musical incongruity might help to illustrate these ideas. If the words from the hymn "I Love to Tell the Story" (Trinity Hymnal, revised, #478) were set to the tune Passion Chorale (used in "O Sacred Head, Now Wounded," #247), the resulting incongruity would be immediately apparent. While the words express joy, the music tells a different story. Of the eight musical phrases in Passion Chorale, seven demonstrate a smooth, predominantly slow descent in the melodic line. These are the motions people make with their bodies when feeling sad. The result is a musical expression of grief, lament, or melancholy. Setting the joyful words of "I Love to Tell the Story" to this sad tune would produce a jarring effect and rob the words of their meaning, much like a sarcastic tone of voice. Conversely, if the words from "O Sacred Head" were set to the tune of "I Love to Tell the Story," the doleful text would receive an irreverent treatment, due to the composer's use of strong upward leaping intervals and jagged, dotted rhythms. These musical features convey rapid, large, upward gestures with the body. We understand motions such as these to express joy and exuberance. Such a tune is not suitable for lyrics describing our Savior's wounded head and grief-stricken body, but is well suited to serve the text with which it is normally paired.

The Associative Model

The second model of musical communication is sometimes referred to as the designative model or the iconic model, but is most commonly known as the associative model. This model of communication is familiar to most folks, if only because we can sometimes recognize when it happens to us. In this model, music is linked with the experience of the listener, such that whenever the listener hears the same or similar music again, the experience and accompanying emotions of the initial hearing are brought to mind.

This model often has little to do with the music itself (whether it is slow or fast, loud or soft, etc.), but has more to do with the individual experiences and biases that a listener brings to the listening experience by external association. Each reader can likely recall an experience associated with the hearing of some music or musical style from an earlier part of life that is remembered each time that music is heard again.

For example, one worshiper once recounted that she could not finish singing "Wonderful Grace of Jesus" without weeping. The common tune of this hymn does not contain particularly sorrowful musical sound constructs. In fact, it is generally sung quickly, with jaunty, dotted rhythms. It has a rather boisterous refrain, sounding like a college fight song. As her story unfolded, it turned out that "Wonderful Grace of Jesus" was sung at both of her parents' funerals. The grief of those occasions was recalled for her each time this hymn was sung in church. The associative model of musical communication, though highly individualized, can be quite powerful.

Musical Communication and the Church

Musical communication has a bearing on the life of the church. When the Word of God is set to music, as in the psalms, or when biblically based hymn texts are set to music, it is important that the music be of a type that is objectively congruent with the emotional content of the text itself. Composers for the church should take care that the music they write for biblically based texts are emotionally compatible with the tone of the text.

The apostle Paul alludes to this when he says that in worship "everything should be done in a fitting and orderly way" (1 Cor. 14:40). Calvin echoes this sentiment in his preface to the Genevan Psalter of 1565. He first observes that "after the intelligence must follow the heart and the affections." He then cautions that songs in the church must be moderated in such a manner as to "carry the weight and majesty appropriate to the subject."

It seems self-evident that, when selecting music for worship, the intrinsic model of musical communication must be employed. This model relies on a means of objective musical expression that can communicate to all people, based on the universality of human emotional expression. Determining music for worship on the basis of its associations for various individuals would be a recipe for chaos and would promote an emphasis on individual feelings instead of focusing on the content of the text to be sung.

The importance of deliberately considering the music used in worship cannot be overstated. When the music amplifies the emotional tone of the text, its propositional content is seared into our beings with a power that not only shapes our intellects, but also teaches our hearts how to feel about the texts we are singing.

Conversely, when the music presents an incongruent affect for the text being sung, the result can range from shocking to comical, from sarcastic to chaotic. At the least, incongruities between text and music can impede understanding of the text; at the worst, musical incongruities can foster incorrect understandings and teach inappropriate emotional responses to various aspects of the biblical narrative.

The greatest hymns of the Christian faith are those that have successfully partnered the emotional content of the music with the emotional tone of the text. Our call from the psalmist is to sing the glory of God's name, to make his praise glorious (Ps. 66:2). Let us do so with music that is crafted in accordance with his Word.

The authors, members of Westminster OPC in Hollidaysburg, Pa., are involved in the CCE's Psalter-Hymnal project. They quote the NIV. Reprinted from New Horizons, April 2010.

New Horizons: April 2010


Also in this issue

Why God Wants Us to Sing

Putting Death to Death!

Skipping Chapel

The Apostles' Creed, Part 2: I Believe in Jesus Christ

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