Morality: Music has order
The story goes that a lady went up to an airport baggage counter with three pieces of luggage. She said, "I would like this first bag shipped to Atlanta, the second one to Chicago, and my third bag shipped to Alaska." "We can't do that," the man replied. She quickly replied, "Last month you did it."
Disorder can be frustrating! Whether it's a mixup with airport luggage or a cheeseburger topped with every vegetable and condiment when you ordered it as ketchup only, chaos and confusion are certainly not good. Unfortunately, disorder and chaos often go much deeper than a simple mix-up. Families can be full of constant fighting, or fathers can become drunkards and leave their families in uncertainty. Thankfully, God is a God of order, and He desires His church to be run in an orderly manner. Paul said:
I Corinthians 14:15 - What is it then? I will pray with the spirit, and I will pray with the understanding also: I will sing with the spirit, and I will sing with the understanding also.
In the two previous posts in this series, we looked at two reasons that music has intrinsic morality: music conveys emotion, and it is a form of expression. In this post, I would like to look at a third reason: music has order. The basic argument goes like this:
- God desires order
- Music is full of order
- Anything with order can be marred by disorder
- Thus, music has intrinsic morality
1: God desires order
First, God desires and loves order. We can see this in many things He has set up. For instance, His creation demonstrates an amazing amount of specified complexity and orderliness. Yes, it has been marred by sin; but much of the original beauty is still visible even today. For instance, God based all of life on DNA, which binds the diversity of creation into a uniform order.
Second, God's institution of authority demonstrates His desire for order. Although some leaders are definitely bad, the fact that there is a leader at all is almost always a suppressing force on evil. We see how quickly the situation deteriorates in a large city when police forces are unavailable, such as during a hurricane. God-given leadership is meant to protect us from a lot of this evil by providing basic law and order.
Third, God desires order for His church. Besides the authority He has placed in the church in the form of pastors, elders, and deacons (with Himself as the Chief Shepherd), He commands the church to be in the unity of the Spirit (Ephesians 4:3). Paul rebuked the church in Corinth for their confusing church services where people were speaking in tongues without an interpreter. He told the church at Corinth, "Let all things be done decently and in order." (I Corinthians 14:40)
In summary, it is evident that God loves order. He desires it for His creation, government, and church.
Music is full of order
"It's no good, Sir," said the hopeless pupil to his English teacher. "I try to learn, but everything you say goes in both ears and out the other."
"Goes in both ears and out the other?" asked the puzzled teacher. "But you have only two ears, boy."
"You see, Sir? I'm no good at math, either."1
Perhaps you can relate--you don't like math either! Music, though, is founded heavily in mathematics. For instance, good music has a steady rhythm that adds predictability. Without it, musicians would have a much more difficult time staying together in an orchestra or choir. The actual pitches of notes are mathematical, as are the 12-tone chromatic and 7-tone diatonic scales. When an instrument plays a note, it is actually playing several notes at once: the fundamental tone and a series of overtones. The precise combination and strength of these overtones is one crucial way we can distinguish between different instruments playing the same notes. For instance, it helps us determine whether a trumpet or clarinet is playing, even if both are playing an A.
Perhaps you've heard a song with beautiful harmonies; many notes combine into a nice sound largely because of the underlying mathematics and fractions between the different notes. And then there is phrasing, harmonic progressions, sequences, repetition, and so many other forms of order in good music. Without a doubt, music is heavily mathematical, and thus, is very orderly.
Anything with order can be perverted
I believe that here on earth, anything that has order can be perverted. It can be rearranged to be messy and disorderly. If you don't agree, try to think of an example where this is not the case. A well-kept garden deteriorates into a weed-infested lot without any intentional effort on anyone's part. A clean room devolves into a virtual junkyard in less than a month without intentional effort to keep it up. I would argue that a beautiful song has a lot of order; but let it be marred enough by sin, and it will become an aural junk heap of messy, clashing, and clanging noise, and quite different than beautiful music.
But you may wonder, "Why would anyone prefer music that is disorderly?" I believe we can trace this back to our sinful nature; it resonates with the disorder of the fallen human soul. Many of the "works of the flesh" mentioned in Galatians 5 are disorderly; e.g., "variance, emulations, wrath, strife, seditions, heresies" and others. This is in direct contrast to the "fruit of the Spirit".
To be clear, I am not talking about well-intentioned but imperfect music, which is an important distinction. For instance, I am not talking about a godly singer being off key. Yes, this is disorder to an extent, but it is of an innocuous sort. I am of the opinion that after after we hear the first song in heaven, we will be ashamed at even our very best songs here on earth as they seem like childishness by comparison. Someone said: "A youth in heaven will know more than an aged theologian on earth, just as a child standing on the top of a mountain can see very much farther than a giant at its base."2 And so imperfection due to the weakness of our present voices and bodies is not the same as an intentional disorder. It is like the difference between someone who bumps into you by mistake and someone else who intentionally punches you in the face.
So how can music be disorderly? Just about every aspect has been affected; for example, the singing can become corrupted. Have you noticed how most well-known modern singers alter their voices to draw attention to themselves, or to sound sensual or rebellious? The singing is "grungy," "gravelly," or otherwise intentionally downgraded from a nice, orderly sound. In some cases, the music would be better labelled "screaming" than singing.
Another example is the timbre. Electric guitars correctly label their distinctive sound as "distortion." Heavy rock music also has a tendency to become over-compressed, creating one loud and constant wall of headache-inducing sound in many styles.
The words in some styles are confusing and vague; this is especially true of CCM. Many CCM songs could be sung by almost any religion, and some could even pass for non-religious love songs.
The musical writing style can also be disorderly. Most atonal music falls into this category in my view. I once attended a concert where the pianist played an atonal piece, and in some places I wouldn't have been able to know whether he made mistakes or not, since the notes seemed to lack structure. Some atonal music may have its place as special effect, but I would argue that it is an exception, not the rule.
According to the official U.S. Army website3, the "First Call" is performed on the bugle and will "[s]ound as a warning that personnel will prepare to assemble for a formation." It is important that this be performed clearly, as the example on the Army website:
The importance for order and clarity is mentioned in the Bible, specifically for a military trumpet call:
I Corinthians 14:8 - For if the trumpet give an uncertain sound, who shall prepare himself to the battle?
Orderliness is an important aspect of music, and it is yet another reason that music has intrinsic morality. As we strive to live godly lives, let's also strive to listen only to godly music and not pollute the air with sounds of rebellion. Doing this will help us to keep our hearts with all diligence.
Hunter, Charles and Frances, Healing Through Humor: Fabulous Jokes from the Happy Hunters; Creation House Press, Lake Mary, Florida; c2003, p. 5 ↩
(Guthrie) Burgess, David F., Encyclopedia of Sermon Illustrations, Concordia Publishing House, St. Louis, MO; ISBN 0-570-04243-7, p. 98, #442 ↩
http://www.music.army.mil/music/buglecalls/firstcall.asp, accessed 2018 March ↩