Law and liberty are two words that impress on the mind in a particular way. It is important to think of “law and liberty” together, rather than “law or liberty,” as if they are opposed. The idea of liberty without law is man’s dream since Eden, whereas the Bible provides God’s law as the foundation for liberty. Hence, law and liberty.
Law and Music
Music, when it was under the auspices of the church in the West, developed rules that we still teach students today. This is an application of the idea of law and liberty. When a society is governed by God’s rules, it applies the same principle to other areas of life.
Thus in the West we had church or Christian music. The rules included the idea that pornography was just as wrong in music as it was in print. Musicians have always known how to express sexuality in music, but the idea was anathema to those governed by Biblical faith, and the rules of music expressed this faith. The result was music that had many voices blended together to make a unified and satisfying composition.
In this music the four major elements blended together in unique ways. Melody and harmony mixed with rhythm and tone color in creative ways that demanded more and more from both composer and performer. Even the solo compositions of J.S. Bach, for violin or cello, had implied harmonies and overtones that made the music pleasant to listen to and a challenge to perform.
Lawlessness and Music
For the past couple of hundred years or more, composers and musicians have been trying to abandon rules in music. The resulting abstractionism creates a cacophony of sound that is neither pleasant to listen to nor comprehensible. Melody and harmony are replaced with an over-emphasis on rhythm and dissonance.
Percy Grainger, an Australian pianist who made the grade in the golden age of pianists (approx 1880-1950) said that “practical-minded people welcome any type of music that will encourage themselves and others to dance rather than to dream, to act rather than to think.” “Rhythm,” he said, “is a great energizer, a great slave-driver.”1
It is not surprising, then, to find that when Christianity has had a greater influence on music, melody and harmony — those elements of music that encourage dreaming and thinking — were the important aspects of music. Rhythm was always present, but it was subordinated to the melody. Dissonance, too, had its place, but it always resolved itself in chords that indicated beauty rather than ugliness. After all, while God’s world presently has its ugly side, the end result is a new world and new world order where peace and harmony reign.
The rules of music, while not listed in the Bible, are just as real and just as important. It was Richard Wagner who deliberately attempted to subvert the older Christian world with his music, making it highly sexual in content. He did this by moving away from the diatonic scale to a chromatic one where the music moves from key to key with no resolution. (Diatonic scales are our major and minor scales made up of tones and semitones, whereas a chromatic scale is one entirely of semitones.) Older music had a fixed key, a point of starting and ending, and the emotional content of the music was satisfied in the long run by returning to the original key.
Churches and Strip Club Music
The rules of music were governed, in the long run, by the ethical standards of the Bible, the Ten Commandments. Just as the Bible confines sexuality to the family and the bedroom, so too the church at one time discouraged a highly sexualized music style. This meant a subordination of rhythm to melody and harmony, rather than making rhythm the strongest of the musical elements.
This point is not lost today on film composers whose music must match the visual images. The kind of music used for strip clubs is increasingly the kind of music we can hear in our churches, and if we would just take away the Christian lyrics and let the music speak for itself, we might better understand the issues today in church music. These issues revolve around the way the elements of music are combined in composition and make what we call rock music, or whether the older style of composition, (e.g., J.S. Bach’s St. Matthew Passion) is more reflective of a Christian approach to music. The hymns of the 18th and 19th century are written in the older “classical” style rather than rock style, but these are losing popularity to the modern approach to composition borrowed from pop culture.
There can be no Christian alternative to contemporary culture until there is a Christian understanding of music that so heavily influences our culture. This means re-constructing the rules of music to reflect Biblical faith. This may or may not mean music identical to the past, but it certainly requires the establishing of standards so we can answer the question: What makes good music?
As Biblical law has taken a lower priority in Christian living, so too have many standards in other areas been eroded. Educational standards have declined, just as artistic standards for a century have been struggling to make music and art meaningful. Abstraction in art followed abstraction in music, and both appear to strive for liberty without law. This is the long-term dream of mankind: to have no laws, no standards other than what the individual desires.
When God’s law is again asserted in its full glory, we might again see standards in art that will provide the framework for great music and great paintings that allow the expression of ideas and emotions that seem impossible to convey in words.
1. From a radio broadcast in Australia , December 1934.