This article is by our guest author Caroline Bennett, and it is the first part of a series she has written about music. In the coming months, she will be sharing music reviews, composer biographies, and music history articles with us as part of her music series.
Music is underappreciated in society. To be sure, people hear it—blaring from speakers inside stores, rumbling from inside vehicles, playing softly in the background at restaurants. But looking at school curricula, where math and science dominate even over English, we see that music is thought unimportant in education. Yet this careless attitude towards music shows a failure to understand how vital it is to mankind, for not only does its study teach history, but it also offers insight into men’s hearts, as well as draws believers closer to God.
One of the best ways to learn how to appreciate music is to study its history, seeing how it has developed over time because of the various events and cultures of the world. For instance, during the Renaissance, the predominate religion in Europe was Roman Catholicism, and so much of the music written was religious music for choirs. But at the same time, bards were traveling around to different courts, playing their portable instruments—the lute and harp—and recounting the important events of the past and present, since many people could not read in those days. As better education became more accessible, however, more people learned how to play instruments and compose music. By the 1600s most well-to-do families owned keyboard instruments like the clavichord and harpsichord, the precursors to the piano. The music composed during this period—called the Baroque Period—was vastly different from that of the Medieval Age, mostly because composers were making great advances in their understanding of music and of how instruments could be played. But because Baroque composers were generally Christians, even the most secular of Baroque works still aimed to glorify God and reflect the beauty which he had created. This mindset changed in the next two centuries, when many composers began writing music not because they felt that it reflected God’s glory, but rather because they wished to express themselves and be unique. Unfortunately, this attitude continues into the 21st century.
This leads to another reason why studying music is important: it helps Christians understand the philosophies of different eras and people. Up into the mid-1700s, most music was written from a Christian worldview; after that, many composers were influenced by various secular philosophers like Rene Descartes and Friedrich Nietzsche. For instance, Richard Wagner, who lived from 1813 to 1883, was a German composer whose music reflects beliefs very similar to those of Nietzsche (the two were actually friends). Both Wagner and Nietzsche believed that man had not yet reached his full potential, but could become an übermensch—“superman”—if he lived without any restraints, pleasing only himself. Wagner’s operas were, as a result, often about larger-than-life men who did daring deeds and lacked any kind of morality. And despite the fact that Wagner’s music was often bombastic, it had a powerful effect on many of his listeners and continues to be revered to this day. This shows how much music can influence its listeners—for good or ill. The words sung, and even the notes played, convey a worldview which, if only accepted and never examined, can lead to a twisted knowledge of the world and of God.
But just because most of the composers from the Romantic and Modern eras wrote music that does not reflect a Christian worldview does not mean that Christians cannot listen to and appreciate it. Wagner did write some heartbreakingly beautiful songs, and Christians can listen to them and rejoice in the beauty God has created, and thank him for giving man a creative mind and energy to create such music. For God gives common grace to all of his creatures; he makes the sun to rise and the rain to fall even on those who do not trust in him. He has given those who revile him the ability to write and perform beautiful music that, whether they like it or not, declares the mighty power of God.
The apostle Paul told the Christians in Philippi that they were to pursue after all that is lovely and edifying to the soul (Philippians 4:8). Most music does just that. One cannot study it, listen to it, or play it without thinking of how great and glorious our God is, for not only does it reflect the beauty that he has instilled in the earth, but it also reminds us that man is creative because he is made in the image of the Creator.
To make believers rejoice in the Lord—that is the ultimate end of music. And that is why Christians especially should appreciate it.