on the enjoyment of music

I love music.

I wouldn’t know what I would do without it. I imagine it must be like living without colour: everything would have the appearance of varying degrees of black and white (and grey).

More than merely something to be enjoyed, I have found music to be a fascinating phenomenon. I have previously written about the connection between music and emotions (particularly nostalgia), but one question I often muse (heh) over is why human beings love music so much.

I recently came across an article by Gavin Ortlund which explores this very question. It is well worth reading in full (“The Real Reason You Love Music”), but of interest to me is Ortlund’s exploration of this question from a Christian worldview perspective. In a beautifully expressed passage, he says:

If a triune God created the world as a work of art—not out of necessity, but out of love and freedom—then music can be understood, along with everything beautiful in the world, as a faint reflection of the pre-temporal glory of God. It is a tiny echo of what was happening before time and space. What rhythm and harmony are trying to do, however imperfectly, is trace out something of that love and joy that has been forever pulsating between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Viewed in this way, music is not a distraction away from reality, but rather a clue toward it. It is not like an opiate to a man on his deathbed, but like a window to a man in a cellar—a light shining into the darkness, revealing something beyond. In this respect I associate music with art, reason, and sex. They are like little windows through which transcendence touches our lives, whispering to us of a world we have never dreamed.

In short, we as Christians we can readily acknowledge that music is a good gift from a creator God, given by Him for us to enjoy, and through which we can have a sense of transcendence beyond this world into true Reality: God Himself.

If our hearts are restless until they find rest in Him, is it any wonder that He has given us clues in this world — music, beauty, art, nostalgia — things which cause us to resonate with an “inconsolable longing” (as C.S. Lewis would put it) for the eternal?

This makes sense, somewhat, of why we are instructed to sing songs of praise to God (e.g. Psalms 30, 96). If music helps us to know Him, what better way to exalt Him than with it? Indeed, music and singing helps the word of God to dwell in us richly and fuels our joy in Christ (Colossians 3:16; cf Ephesians 5:19).

There are, of course, limits to how far this line of reasoning can go (which Ortlund himself recognises). For example, it is not the case that music proves the existence of God; nor can one truly know God through music (i.e. apart from the special revelation of God through His Son Jesus).

We need also to recognise the power that music has, and to wield it carefully. To seek transcendence apart from God is to court danger. Human beings are spiritual beings, so we naturally long for spiritual experiences; but not all such experiences are from the good God.

In conclusion, may we enjoy the good gift of music with thankful hearts, “addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with [our] heart[s], giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (Eph 5.19-20)

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