Sabbatical - Chapter 5

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Chapter 5: The effect of music: complexity, ambiguity emotion and spirituality.

We have seen how our choice and response to music to a great degree reflect our culture and help affirm our identity. However, when people are asked, the main reason they give most consistently for listening to music is ‘mood and emotion regulation.’[1]

While there is no doubt that our different personalities and different cultural identities are very important in relation to the way we respond to music, the capacity of music to move people is almost universal.

To most people, perhaps particularly the non-musically trained, the main way that music impinges on them is in relation to their emotions.

Music has a capacity, along with the other arts, but perhaps more universally, to speak directly to people’s emotional state, and can be used for good or ill to manipulate that state. The ambivalence of St. Augustine about music, which has been shared by others over the years, stemmed from his understanding of music’s power to move the emotions, and his real fear that the worshipper might be more moved by the singing than what is sung.

Music, as we have seen can work on an emotional and a cognitive level. Trained musicians might tend to focus on the cognitive, and perhaps try and offer their judgments about music and performance from a technical standpoint, they might analyse the ‘why’ of the emotional power of a piece, but for most the first way into music is through its power to engage their emotions. Music moves people to tears, (although it is difficult to analyse this cognitively in that a melody that might move us to tears one day might leave us cold on another depending on our mood, or whatever else is on our mind.) Most non-trained musicians describe their response to music in emotional terms: longing, tenderness, awe, sadness, joy etc.

Gebauer et all in their article on the response of people on the autistic spectrum to music begin by saying: ‘Music is highly emotional: it communicates emotions and synchronises emotions between people.’[2]

Ball states that one of music’s most valuable attributes is the ‘nurturing and education of emotion’[3] and goes on to ask if there is ‘a mode of emotionality inherent to music for which, as Aaron Copland put it ‘there exists no adequate word in any language’ and which the American philosopher Diana Raffman calls ineffable’.[4]

Ineffable is an interesting choice of words in relation to music, as it is a term most used in spirituality and theology to describe that which is inexpressible, and also what is unable to be spoken of because of its sacredness, i.e language about God.

We have talked of the danger of the idolatry of giving music divine status, but music does seem to have an ability to offer some sense of meaning that is both inexpressible and unknowable, in a way that parallels a Christian understanding of God. Copland in that same interview is quoted as saying in response to the question: ‘Is there meaning in music?’ ‘My answer to that would be ‘Yes’.

To the supplementary question: ‘Can you state in so many words what the meaning is? He replied: ‘My answer to that would be ‘No’.[5]

The conundrum that most people perceive music to be meaningful, but there is no clear sense of what it actually means has exercised philosophers and aestheticians down the centuries.

In the 19th century, the vicious antagonism between Wagner and the critic Eduard Hanslick, whom Wagner cruelly satirised as Hans Beckmesser in his opera ‘The Mastersingers of Nuremberg’ was based on different understandings of whether music could mean anything beyond itself.

Such questions don’t generate such venom today, but they remain. One of the most interesting philosophers on this subject is Susanne Langer, who wrote during the 1950s. She proposed that music doesn’t so much represent emotion as mimic it: the ebb and flow of music is analogous to the dynamics of emotion itself. [6]

What I find interesting about Langer’s work is that she looks for the meaning of music via its ability to engage people’s emotions, and its ability to at least imply that it speaks the language of the emotions.

What it lacks is the insights about the relationship of music to personality and culture, and its power to create and relate to our social and personal identities, which I believe profoundly influence the way that music speaks to and interacts with our emotions.

The varied ways in which music offers meaning, even if it is usually difficult to say what that meaning is, is what makes it such a significant phenomenon. Music offers meaning that relates to our personality, our social and cultural identity, our cognitive understanding, and through all those to our emotions in some way or other.

Where my thinking has moved on from Langer’s work in the 1950’s is that I believe that the meaning of music is in the experience, rather than in the music itself. As Ball says: ‘Music is a thing we do’

It is an interesting philosophical question as to whether music exists if it is not experienced, if it is not ‘done’,

Also music can be experienced, can be done, in different ways. A performer and a listener have different experiences of the same piece of music. Playing an instrument is a different experience from singing, listening alone is different from listening with others, performing alone is different from performing with others, listening live is different from listening to a recording, and so on. Each different way of experiencing music offers different levels of meaning and different ways of engaging with music, cognitively, socially, physically and emotionally. For example, a piece that is boring to perform, might move an audience greatly, and vice versa.

Another area that perplexes trained musicians sometimes is that the emotional power of music has little to do with its technical quality.

I love that phrase from Noel Coward’s ‘Private Lives’: ‘Strange how potent cheap music is.’ In that case the potency of the music was its power of association with a treasured memory, but so often it is comparatively simple music that speaks most directly to people’s emotions, even when there is no clear associational meaning.

I was interested in my own response to the musical items used at Princess Diana’s funeral in 1997. The choir sang part of one of my favourite choral works, the ‘Dies Irae’ from Verdi’s Requiem, and also John Tavener’s ‘Song for Athene’ which I had not heard before. Despite the fact that I usually find the Verdi piece incredibly moving, on that day it left me cold. I was moved by the beauty of the Tavener, but it was Elton John singing ‘Candle in the Wind’ that brought a lump to my throat, and it was certainly that song that people remembered and commented on as being most meaningful for them, and I felt the same, even though usually I would be more drawn to Verdi and Tavener.

I find that difficult to analyse. Perhaps, that occasion needed the raw, on the surface, emotion of Elton John’s singing, rather than the emotion filtered through the disciplined singing of a trained choir. I wonder what implications that has for the use of music that is truly meaningful to people in worship.

There has been research in the 1960s[7] which found a bell curve shape to a graph that set musical preferences against the musical complexity of a piece. The simplest music, using only one or two notes people found boring, and as it gradually grew more complex, the preference line rose, but at a certain level it reached a peak and the more complex music, particularly in terms of tonality, saw a falling off.

What the research implied was that more complex music requires persistence, but is potentially rewarding to those who stick with it.

The question is where the peak in that bell curve lies. It will be in a different place for different people for different music, depending on the things we have already looked at, cultural/social identity, personality and musical training.

There is a difference here between the place different musical genres have in our society. For a pop single to be a ‘hit’ the song has to make an impact right away, whereas it is more or less expected that a classical piece will need to be heard several times to be grasped.

But this need for persistence to fully grasp the value and meaning of a piece of music is not confined to the classical world. I remember in 1980 going to a preview of Stephen Sondheim’s musical ‘Sweeney Todd’ at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, with a group from the local amateur dramatic group I was part of at the time. Most of them were fans of Rogers and Hammerstein and Andrew Lloyd Webber and went with those expectations. Most of them found the piece far too complex and lacking in tunes. I listened more from my classical music background, and experience of opera, and immediately thought the piece a masterpiece. It was not a great success in the West End then, as it didn’t fit the conventional understanding of a musical. But once people got used to it, and engaged with it again it has now become a standard part of the repertoire of musicals.

Another example can been seen in the development of the music of The Beatles. Two psychologists Tuomas Eerola and Adrian North [8] found a way of measuring the complexity of Beatles’ songs and found confirmation of the general view that over time between 1962 and 1970 the songs became steadily complex. How did this trend affect the preferences of the music buying public? Judging popularity by the number of weeks spent the charts, the increase in complexity systematically reduced success, whereas it is the later works of the Beatles, that are universally regarded as offering the clearest expression of their genius.

Similar work has been done on the standard classical repertoire by Dean Keith Simonton. Rather than measuring complexity, Simonton measures originality, (which often goes with complexity, and means less predictability.) Simonton found that scores for aesthetic significance increased as originality rose, but that accessibility/popularity steadily declined.

Throughout western musical history within all genres there are tensions between the familiar and the new, and that is healthy. To stay solely in the familiar, or the easily appropriated, is to risk music becoming stale and losing its emotive power, but to go too far in terms of complexity and originality is to risk music ceasing to have meaning for any but the most highly trained musicians. This tension, of course, has been just as true in relation to music in worship.

The tension is exacerbated when one crosses musical genres and uses the judgments derived from one to assess the merits of another. For example, one wouldn’t judge the singing technique of a pop singer by the same criteria as one would an opera singer. Likewise, is it right to judge the music of a worship song by the same criteria as that of a traditional hymn?

One other difference between popular and classical genres, is that both in the secular and the worship environments, much of popular music is deliberately ephemeral. It aims to make its point quickly, and needs an immediacy in its accessibility and its message.

A pop song that is not in the charts in the first couple of weeks after its release will be very unlikely ever to make it, and after a few weeks it fades into the background, and only a few are remembered. Worship songs in church work in a similar way. A new one is found, and promoted, (usually at a big gathering like Soul Survivor or ECG), and then sung repeatedly until people are tired of it. It is easy to be critical of this, but if the song is effective over that short term, so be it. Of course, such a use of a song goes against the Methodist culture of the authorised hymn book, and the music being chosen by an outside preacher. It needs regular promotion within a church, which is choosing its own music.

Some of the best of the worship songs can really catch the mood and emotion of a moment very effectively, and done well can be helpful in worship, and trained musicians and liturgists need to be careful to judge them on their own terms and not by the criteria of another genre.

In worship there always needs to be a balance between complexity, originality and accessibility, and that question of accessibility must take account of the culture of the congregation and of those the church is trying to reach.

However, is that to say there are no judgements that can be made about musical quality? Are there any criteria that cross genres?

I come back to that comment of Aaron Copland that there is meaning in music, but no one can say what that meaning is.

I believe that the reason that music is such a powerful spiritual tool is related to its capacity to help us engage with that which is meaningful, but by denying us specific meanings, by the fact that it is ineffable it can open us out to that which is deep, profound and ‘other’.

In Chapter 2, I wrote in relation to our son: ‘What thinking about Mark daily reminds me is that ambiguity is at the heart of existence. He has brought us so much, but at a cost, to him and to us. Any spirituality that does not take account of that ambiguity is wishful thinking built of false premises.’

In that context, it is that fact that music is not definite, but inherently ambiguous, that gives it its spiritual significance. To me the greatest music, is not necessarily the most complex, or the most original, but that which allows me to access something of that ambiguity which is at the heart of existence. Music does that in many different ways, and in different ways in different genres, and I would argue that in whatever genre the music with the most emotional power is the music that allows us to engage at different levels, allowing a variety of responses, drawing out our emotions, but not telling us how to feel.

There is music that seems to want to tell you how to feel, and not allow a variety of responses. Some of that can be very effective, a military march might be an example, or a sad sentimental love song, and perhaps these can have depth by the associations we bring to them, the regimental march might be trite musically, but because it reminds an old man of his comrades in arms it can be profoundly moving, likewise the sentimental song might be the one playing when you met your partner, and in worship we need to take those meanings seriously, both positively and negatively.

I know a church that used the song ‘Bind us together’ for a mission weekend many years ago. The weekend was led by a much loved lay member of the church who died suddenly soon afterwards. That simple, rather banal song, had for many years a profound depth of meaning in that church. To a degree, the situation had brought the ambiguity, the happiness of the weekend bringing the church together remembered in the light of the death of a beloved member, and so the song carried far more weight for them that it would for others.

That ability of music to bring together contrasting emotional and cognitive responses simultaneously as it relates us to our identity is part of what gives it profound meaning to us.

The fact that the way music can do that remains a mystery is a key part of its fascination for me. I have recently learnt to sing a song by Schubert called ‘Faith in Spring’ (Frühlingsglaube). It is a simple major key song, about the beauty of spring, calling on the heart to forget its torment as the world grows more lovely, day by day. You would think it would be a happy song, but something in the tune, perhaps the fact that the singer sings two notes to a beat and the piano plays three, means there is a deep poignancy, almost sadness about it, and I find it impossible to say why, except that is what makes it a great song.

In a different genre I find the same poignancy in The Beatles early song: ‘And I love her’ from 1964. I find it is The Beatles’ ability to offer something of that emotional ambiguity that takes many of their songs, (and not just the late ones), onto a level above a simple pop hit.

Vaughan Williams’ ‘The Lark ascending’ regularly tops the list of listeners favourites on Classic FM’s ‘Hall of Fame’. The presenters simply call it beautiful, but in what does its beauty lie? The shifting chords out of which the violin solo ascends in imitation of the bird’s flight are unsettled, and the solo violin takes all of two minutes of fluttering around to finally reach the tune. Are those two minutes of happy experimentation or struggle to find the full voice? We may not ask those questions out loud, but the beauty comes from playing with our expectations, not quite meeting them, but somehow offering a satisfactory, and wonderful way through by playing with our uncertainties.

That ability of music to play with expectations, offering a mixture of what we expect when we expect it, delaying the resolution of the expectation, mixed in with complete surprises is where psychologists look to understand the way that music works into our emotional system. To do that, of course, needs a certain cultural grasp of the musical idiom. It takes an experienced classical listener to grasp how Haydn plays with expectations in as he plays around with the musical form of his day, but it is a great joy for those ‘in the know’, on the other hand I am totally unable to grasp the way that Indian music works on the emotions because I am not experienced in its idioms or in tune with it culture.

While it will happen in different ways in different genres, and is sometimes dependent upon extra musical factors, it is when music offers that sense of ambiguity, that it offers an experience of depth and meaning, and sees to open out to something beyond itself, that allows the possibility of the ‘other’. I would say then it somehow enables us to come into relation with the complex truths that are at the heart of our being, and so lead us into an experience of transcendence.

However, for all music’s power to signify the presence of God for some people, to open the way to that experience of transcendence, where the participant, either performer or listener can have a sense of being at peace and at one with the universe, by itself music is morally neutral.

My experience is that music of all types has a power to profoundly influence listeners and performers, to lift them out of themselves into another sphere, which can be seen as opening one up to transcendence, but from a Christian perspective, that transcendence has to be earthed. God is transcendent, but is also incarnational. Transcendence is given its meaning and focus through God’s revelation in Jesus Christ.

Rabbi Heschel writes that ‘Religious music is an attempt to convey that which is within our reach, but beyond our grasp.’ In that sense all great music is religious music, and it is this that enables it to move us towards transcendence.

It is important to remember that music is an experiential art, a thing we do. While certain types of music, most notably Western classical music, can be said to exist on the page, music does not become real until it is performed, (even if only in the head of an expert score reader reading it off the page!). It also lives on after the performance in the memory of performers and audience, as it is re-experienced, sometimes, as in the case of ear-worms, unintentionally and in unwanted ways.

As such music could be said to fit with the Christian Trinitarian understanding of God. A God who is transcendent, beyond our grasp, but also a God who is incarnational, who in Jesus Christ is given the perfect ‘performance’, as well as a God who is experiential, who is experienced through the Holy Spirit making Jesus real for us today, as a piece of music is experienced in our memory as we sing through it again, or as it comes to us unexpectedly as an ear-worm!

Faith like music does not exist on the page, although doctrines might, it needs to be experienced and put into practice.

 One of the dangers of music as a spiritual tool from a Christian perspective is that it can help us feed into the part of our spiritual search that affirms our identity and offers us a wonderful experience of the divine in a selfish way that us just about fulfilling our own desires.

As we have seen there is no moral value in music. It does heighten people’s emotional and spiritual sensitivity, but without focus it could be to incite lust and violence as much as social concern and awareness of universal love.

We bring our own spiritual understanding and our own emotional state into our listening of music, but music somehow seems to work with those to heighten them and to sacralise them.

And this leads us to look in more detail at the place of music in worship and how we can make the most of this gift that used well offers us a way into a deeper experience of God.


[1]Victoria Williamson: You are the music: How music reveals what it means to be human. Icon Books 2014 (Kindle p 54)

[2]Gebauer etc: ibid

[3]Ball P: ibid (Loc 264)

[4]Ball ibid Loc 5038

[5]Bell ibid Loc 7359

[6]See Langer S.K Philosophy in a New Key Harvard 1957

[7]by Daniel Berlyne at Toronto, and Paul Vitz in the USA Quoted by Ball Loc 6656

[8]Quoted in Ball Loc 6680

Sabbatical - Chapter 5