Today Resonate releases. If you’ve missed my almost subtle promotion of the book this month, the book is entitled Resonate: Enjoying God’s Gift of Music, and it’s essentially a theological look at and a appreciative exploration of music: what it is, what it does, how it works, what the Bible says about it, etc.
In my experience, just about everyone appreciates music. I know a few who don’t seem to care, but almost everyone knows that music is truly amazing. Why? What makes music so special? How is it that music can sometimes lift our spirits, speak more deeply than a sermon, heal more profoundly than medication, and comfort us in some of life’s most difficult moments? (As an example of that last point, have you ever been to a funeral that hasn’t involved music? I haven’t.)
One of the most remarkable aspects of music is its ability to surprise us with the ordinary. Truly, all music is about being human. All songs are about some aspect of the human experience. Music is a means by which people in all cultures throughout all time (we have yet to find an example to the contrary) have wrestled with what it means to live in this world. By its nature, music takes the ordinary stuff of life and presents it to us in a way that makes it look different so that we can think about and experience it in fresh ways.
This is actually a characteristic of all art. Madeleine L’Engle says,
“Perhaps art is seeing the obvious in such a new light that the old becomes new.”
J. R. R. Tolkien said,
“We need…to clean our windows so that the things seen clearly may be freed from the drab blur of triteness or familiarity.”
By artistically crafting her reflections on life in this world, a musician shows us the world we’ve always known as we’ve never known it. By embedding these thoughts into carefully crafted poetry and mixing that poetry with complex sounds, the musician speaks beneath the surface of our lives. Music enters through our senses and cuts into our souls.
As a simple example, I love these lines from Death Cab for Cutie’s song “You Can Do Better than Me”:
“I’ve been slipping through the years
My old clothes don’t fit like they once did
So they hang like ghosts of the people I’ve been”
I’ve always appreciated Death Cab’s ability to turn a phrase that captures something that I take for granted in such a way that I see how significant it truly is. The clothes you don’t wear anymore do stand (or hang) as reminders of where you’ve been, what you’ve done, what you’ve been like. They are a visual representation of growing up and growing old. For the Christian, a closet can be a reminder of God’s faithfulness through the years. When I first heard this song, Death Cab surprised me by reminding me of something that is happening literally every second of my life: I am growing and changing. This what good music does for us.
Music works by indirection. Rather than giving us a bald statement like, “Feel love,” music miraculously conveys love in tones, sonic textures, chord structure, melodies, lead lines, dissonance, resolution, and poetry. It’s impossible to explain precisely how this works, yet we all know what it’s like to feel love as we listen to music. I’ve felt it through the songs of Norah Jones, Sufjan Stevens, MxPx, Switchfoot, and the Beatles. A love song says less than an essay on the subject of love, but conveys more through poetic phrasing and carefully managed tones and melodies.
One thing we can’t forget as we talk about the power and mystery of music is that this gift comes from God. This unbelievable gift, deeply treasured and skillfully exploited by everyone from Bach to Beck, was thought up, engineered, and made into reality by the Creator. It’s his gift to us. He gave us the capacity to hear music, to enjoy it, to find meaning in it, and he gave us a green light to explore this gift to its fullest potential. All of iTunes is evidence that we have taken God’s gift seriously, and it speaks to the diverse and wonderful nature of this gift.
Music speaks to us because God designed it to. I have spent my life enjoying this gift and contemplating its ability to enrich and challenge, to deepen and soar. Lord willing, I will finish my life with a much greater understanding of and appreciation for this gift, but no closer to a clear explanation for how music does what it does. And I will glorify God because of it.
If you enjoy thinking deeply about this kind of thing, and if you want to grow in your appreciation for music (asking what the Bible says about it, how a Christian can enjoy religious and secular music with discernment, how music ties in with the life and mission of the church, etc.), then I invite you to read Resonate.