Robinson College Chapel, Lent Term 2014
This term’s services focus upon music and worship, but music is a notoriously difficult thing to try and define. There are multiple and contradictory philosophies of music, and do we speak about composing, or performing, or hearing? And what counts as music? Beethoven or Bieber? Birdsong? Rainfall? Laughter? Is there music in the unaccompanied speech of a human voice? And what purpose does music serve? To offer consolation, or to effect disruption? Given the sheer complexities of the many and varied questions concerning music, no one at Cambridge would be foolish enough to try and define it… or would they?
Aristotle has told us there are only five senses – and what are our senses? They are dimensions of humanity that access dimensions of the universe as it is. But is it possible that the universe contains dimensions we do not consciously sense? And are there ways of experiencing those dimensions? Well according to the well-known vocal, mathematical, Clare College choral duo, Whitehead and Plumpton (if I’ve understood them correctly), mathematics is one way of accessing dimensions of the universe to which our senses would not otherwise carry us. If mathematics are concerned with the substructures of the universe and how it works, then some philosophers claim that music is thoroughly mathematical – and for that reason music carries us into a fuller experience of what the universe really is.
I wonder if it is for this reason that the seventeenth century philosopher, Liebniz, once wrote, “Music is the pleasure the human mind experiences from counting without being aware that it is counting.” Maths does not simply provide structures for those sitting down to compose music. At a far more complex level, music and mathematics converge on the physics of sound: how pitch is determined by force or weight; how the relation of notes to each other produces a scale; and how frequency determines the harmonics of sound. Of course, this is not the place to go into that, but maybe it is true to say that music exposes us to the nature of the universe in profound and complex and subconscious ways.
But how much of our human nature is engaged when we listen to music? Very little according to Immanuel Kant, who viewed music as pleasing but trivial – because it doesn’t engage our understanding or our moral world. In contemporary language – Stephen Pinker regards music as “auditory cheesecake!” I can’t help thinking there may be a little more going on we listen to music.
Why do advertisers use ‘jingles’ to sell us things we don’t want? If advertising is the art of forcing us to make irrational decisions based upon ignorance, why is music such an important part of that? Why, for centuries, have soldiers marching to battle – been roused for combat using military music? Why do armies employ military bands? Why do football hooligans belt out their hymns in the stadium before going on the rampage? Why do rowers here in Cambridge, psych themselves up for a race using the 1980s rock classic, eye of the tiger? Given that this sermon series concerns the relation of music and worship – then the link between words and music is an important one. Music is one of the means by which an ideology, doctrine, worldview, ethics can be sunk more deeply into the human spirit than might otherwise be possible. Maybe music reaches parts of our being that nothing else can reach.
So – as a working definition for music – perhaps we could say that music is what happens when hidden dimensions of our humanity experience hidden dimensions of the universe.
If it’s true, those who compose music are creating something that was never there – so much as revealing something that was always there, so that it strikes a cord with us. In this sense, musicians are explorers, hunters, unveiling their discoveries to us – offering the possibility that we might become more fully human: As more of who we are experiences more of what there is
Of course, that can be a blessing as well as a curse. When it comes to worship, the songs that we know are those that have stood the test of time: but what about those that failed the test of time? I have a friend who’s collected popular worship songs from the 1960s:
I’m bubbling bubbling bubbling … bubbling bubbling bubbling … I’m bubbling bubbling bubbling … for God!
I wanna throw up, I wanna throw up, I wanna throw up my hands in worship… Im gonna throw up, I’m gonna throw up, I’m gonna throw up my hands in praise.
Popular worship songs at present, share this problem – not necessarily musically but lyrically. The most pervasive publisher of Christian music comes from a set up called Hillsong – who rejoice that the vast majority of songs submitted for recording and publication, are not really about God – but about how God makes me feel. Here – there is no attempt to experience the diversity of otherness that is in the universe – and music is used to endorse the security of a world with which I am familiar. Less of who we are experiencing less of what there is.
The Jesus of Scripture is presented as Prophet, Priest and King – and any decent hymn book would reflect that threefold pattern. But – according to a Masters Thesis submitted to the London School of theology, if we learn our theology from Worship songs – then Jesus is no longer Prophet, Priest and King – instead, Jesus is my girlfriend! In other words, if you simply remove the name Jesus from most worship songs, and replace it with words like baby, honey, darling and so on – the songs would be no different to secular love songs. Of course, no right-minded representative of the liturgy police would deny the importance of emotion and intimacy in worship – and there is nothing wrong with this. The real problem comes when it is the only diet of liturgical music – and when music drills that monoculture into your psyche, it leaves a distorted view of world, and self, and God. If music is what happens when hidden dimensions of our humanity experience hidden dimensions of the universe.– there is no guarantee that music can make this happen. And the quality of the worship music has little relevance. All too easily, music confines us within the familiar – and less of who we are experiences less of what there is.
As problematic as the “Jesus is my girlfriend” mentality is the removal of emotion and intimacy in worship than can happen in certain liturgical and choral settings. Traditionally, this is why we sing psalms as part of our worship, since the psalms are full of vibrant, raw, unrestrained and violent emotion.
But does that emotion electrify our contemporary choral tradition? The question it raises for me is the extent of training, or background, or experience of hearing – that is required in order for the emotional impact of our choral tradition to become natural. Why is it that traditional forms of music simply don’t do it for so many people today? People who have grown up to experience different types of music as natural? It is all too easy in a setting like Cambridge, for those who appreciate what we consider more sophisticated types of music to retreat into an Onanistic elite, treasuring the familiar and denouncing the unfamiliar – and yet, that retreat is precisely the “Jesus is my girlfriend” sentiment: “The world out there, the terrifying beauty of the other – can stay out there… and I will stay comfortable with the familiar.” Less of who we are experiencing less of what there is.
Music has all the capacity to endorse Christian tribalism in any form, to deliver us from our self-awareness, to confirm and strengthen us in all prejudice, and to keep us in unreflective submission to all that makes us comfortable. It can serve as a hammer on the nail-head of closed-minded, irrational doctrines and ideologies.
But if … music is what happens when hidden dimensions of our humanity experience hidden dimensions of the universe, if it releases more of who we are to experience more of what there is, then surely it has a key role to play in the worshipping life of any kind of Christian community. What does it mean for music to draw us out of ourselves, to experience otherness in new and unexpected ways, to help us to become ever more human? These are the questions that speakers will address over the next few weeks.
But let me finish by returning to Aristotle. Plenty of studies argue that in human evolution, music preceded spoken language by several thousand years – which would mean that if, as Aristotle said, we are political animals – it is only because we were already musical animals. The question is not whether we are musical… but whether we will allow music to make us ever more fully ourselves.