Music with Meaning

singing-in-the-carWhen do we utter words least true about our convictions, beliefs and attitudes if not during song? Often our words declared to melody lack scrutiny and we are not held accountable to them. In song the most unfaithful partner is permitted to declare themselves the most devoted lover; the timid observer morphs into an outraged blasphemer; for a few moments we become the very company we would never keep and others pledge allegiance to a belief they would never truly hold.


But of course we can say that the inverse is also true. It is when the music plays that our most private thoughts and intimate emotions are released, often revealing a fuller explanation to not only the hearer but ourselves. What we could never put into words suddenly flows freely off the tongue and takes on new and fresh meaning.

I doubt I need to persuade anyone about the power of music, especially in the church context. For it is under many steeples that our leaders have carefully structured the presentation and selection of music, knowing that it has often be used as a tool, a manipulator, to bring about superficial following and devotion. But how should we incorporate music? While we are all aware of its power I think most of us are also aware of its necessity; that we should not, simply out of fear, go without it.

An older person commented on a song we sang in church just the other day, talking about how difficult it is to sing these ‘new’ songs. ‘On the contrary’ I said, ‘many of the modern songs are repetitive and easy to sing in comparison to the range and melody line of some of the hymns.’ As with all our senses, we have preferences to certain tastes, smells and sounds. But these preferences do not come from no-where. They have been molded and influenced by experience.

Music Old vs NewTo quote a favorite writer of mine, F.W Boreham, “And thus music revives, as nothing else can do, the tender grace of a day that is dead…There is a sublime virtue in anything that brings us into vital touch with the glorious past.” When we are transported back into a time that was wonderful we cannot help but sing the song with gladness and joy. Even when we are reminded of times of sadness it allows us to sing with deeper meaning and reflection. It is our ability to feel and be driven by unexplainable emotion that connects us to music, for it is the music that pulls on these strings that are so seldom awakened throughout our tedious routine of life.

When we read the songs in Scripture indeed we are meant to reflect back on some past event and remember with emotion filled praise. Think of Moses & Mariam’s song in Exodus 15 “Sing to the Lord, for he is highly exalted. The horse and its rider he has hurled into the sea”; David’s Psalm in 1 Chronicles 16 “Give thanks to the Lord, call on his name; make known among the nations what he has done. Sing to him, sing praise to him; tell of all his wonderful acts”; the song of Mary and Zechariah in Luke 1, praising God for what he has done for his people. We are to remember and be moved to praise. But not only to look back and praise, longing for a past experience to be repeated, but to look forward in great expectation of what is to come. This is what sets songs of worship apart from ordinary music.

“These things—the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.” C.S Lewis

St Augustine rightly treated music with caution. Aware of its power he wrestled with the balance of the moving melody and lyrical content, determined to always uphold the latter. He described himself as having ‘grievously sinned’ when being ‘more moved by the singing rather than the thing that is sung’.  But is it not also true that some words are sung with inappropriate melody? Moving music is not something we should altogether avoid but rather use appropriately. I have often read the words of the Psalms and hymns and been so moved by them, only to hear them sung and feel indifferent and removed. The mood should match the message and when it does I don’t think we should be afraid.

The fact that we are called to sing and not simply to recite tells me that there is an appropriate emotion expected from us as worshippers which we seldom experience or express without song. So while we are to be careful of extravagant emotions we should likewise be warned not to suppress those that are necessary – for we should not only sing as the expression of our minds’ understanding for then we could simply speak, but in song our souls should praise and our spirits rejoice!

Jade Poole
works as a pastor in PE in areas of women's ministry and music, maintaining productivity with quality doses of coffee. She is married and has, objectively, the most beautiful baby girl in the world.
  • Awesome Jade, as I read this again I realised that one could make a pretty good argument that the Bible suggests song in response to what God’s actions as well as in supplication.
    I would add (linking to your reference to both Boreham and Augustine) that the melody can be used to move the singer towards the thing sung. Even though I don’t long for God as a deer pants for the water, music and song can kindle that longing. It’s worth exploring a lot more. I believe Graham has been reading Carson on worship for CCU so he may have something interesting to add here (hint).

  • Thanks very much for this post Jade. Reading it again and reflecting on your points, I feel pulled in two different directions:

    Firstly, a point made by D.A. Carson in ‘Worship Under the Word,’ is that our delight during corporate singing is not in the aesthetic beauty or novelty (or melody) but the object of our worship; much contemporary worship has unwittingly with time moved away from our true object of devotion towards worshipping worship, the emotions conjured by music. Tremper Longman III offers another valuable aspect to this point in ‘How to Read the Psalms’ by showing that intellect, will and emotions are intertwined in the human personality and then concluding that the Psalms ground emotion in our covenant faith, for the psalmists’ emotions at composition were feelings directly associated to their relationship with God. But because the music the Psalms were set to is largely unknown to us, our focus must be on the lyrical content and meaning in context.

    Secondly, in the work I cited Carson above, R. Kent Hughes quotes Jonathan Edwards, arguing a point no one else is better qualified to make, “As there is no true religion where there is nothing but affection, so there is no true religion where there is no religious affections.” Surely then music appropriate to the truth sung – indeed, in service of the written and spoken gospel – is an important tool for creating the appropriate response and feeling.

    Why I linger on the side of caution, that being my first point, is because music and its resultant emotions are subjective, meeting us at different places and times they can have varied impacts on how they make us feel. From my own experience I can point to Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 14 (popularly called the ‘Moonlight Sonata’). To my senses it is a profoundly tragic piece of music, drenched in sadness, yet when I said that to my wife that she told me she had never experienced or thought of the composition in that way.

    Lots to think about. Thank you again for the work and thought you have put into the post.

    • Jade Poole

      Thanks for the feedback. Graham I hear your concern and have
      been reminded of your first point on many occasions. I’ve seen how music is
      used badly both in evoking excessive emotion and also in suppressing it
      completely. I don’t think either is a good idea. The subjectivity of feelings is
      in their very nature and so you cannot avoid that. I’m not saying we should blindly trust our feelings, but rather in the context of a church that teaches truth,
      and certainly also the meaning and purpose of singing in church, I think we
      should then allow feelings a little more space than we sometimes do.

      We are often scared of things we struggle to explain or pin down with academic
      theological language (comments under ‘The Silence of God’ and omitting the work of the Spirit). We feel ‘unqualified’ or ‘uninformed’ enough to teach about it
      without concrete terms and explanations; I think it goes to show how affected
      we have been by the scientific method in the way we work out our theology and
      practises. Having said that, do not misunderstand me, I value and uphold
      careful study and academic work and we should work hard at understanding all
      things properly – but are we ruling things out or running from them because they fail to meet our traditional criteria?