Music is the Christian art par excellence. From that awe-inspiring moment in the past when the morning stars sang together and the sons of God shouted for joy, to that wondrous time in the future when Christians will join in the song of the redeemed, the Bible is full of references to music. Our Lord himself, in the Epistle to the Hebrews, speaks of joining in praise “in the midst of the congregation.”

With this in mind, it is little short of amazing to me that the art of music should be so lightly esteemed among many evangelical Christians. In many of our churches music is approached and used almost as entertainment, and light entertainment at that. Some may be inclined to deny this statement or to take offense at it. But before you stop reading, consider a moment. What is the ordinary gospel hymn? Is it a noble melody, well harmonized, wedded to a text expressed in words of beauty and power? To ask the question is to answer it, regretfully, in the negative. Worthy hymns are, like everything that is worthy, in the minority. I have the distinct impression that a good many of our popular hymns are written to sell, not to save; for their bounce, not their blessing.

There seems to be a feeling in some evangelical circles that if music is really deep, it is suspect and perhaps subversive and therefore not to be used in church. There are even ministers who feed their congregations with the strong meat of the Word and at the same time surround their preaching with only the skimmed milk of music. My brethren, these things ought not so to be!

Leaving, for the moment, the place and use of music in our church services, what about its place and use in our personal lives? It is my conviction that many Christians are missing much blessing and inspiration by leaving great music out of their scheme of living. The deprivation may well be more significant today than in the past, for most of us have more leisure time than ever before.

Some may have the notion that to appreciate great music one must understand its technicalities. This is simply not true. To appreciate, enjoy, and benefit from music all you have to do is listen to it! A musical friend may give you advice about what to listen for, or you may find a good book on music appreciation that will help you. Yet these aids, while pleasant, are not at all essential. What I say is literally true: all you have to do is listen.

But the word “listen” needs clarification. In these days when our ears are assailed, whether we like it or not, with canned music (usually mediocre) in restaurants, stores, and even airplanes, we tend to push music aside without really paying attention to it. Thus listening has become, for many, a lost art. But when I suggest that you listen to music, I do not mean that, after putting a record on the turntable, you will then begin to read the paper, do the dishes, or converse with a friend. Instead I mean that you will sit quietly, and with every bit of mental energy you possess concentrate entirely on the music. This will not be easy at first. In fact, listening can be just as tiring as any other mental activity. But if you desire the rewards, you must pay the price in honest, intense concentration.

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Uphill To The Best

If your musical diet has largely consisted of the light, sugary, sentimental kind of music, typified by certain of the popular gospel-hymn arrangements or by the prevalent secular “mood” music so often heard today, you will find the going, temporarily at least, all uphill. One of the great virtues of the good gospel hymn is the immediacy of its appeal. This is not in itself a bad thing. Straightforward appeal is indeed the virtue of the popular song. And there are also pieces of great music that speak so very simply and directly that their message is at once grasped and enjoyed. Yet unlike lesser music, these pieces are wonderfully durable; repeated hearing year after year does not wear them out.

Let us not, however, deny ourselves the enrichment of much of the greatest music merely on the basis of its seeming obscurity. In general, the music of immediate appeal is somewhat like a handkerchief box: all the beauty is on the surface, and there is no depth. Very often the music that on first hearing seemed strange and uninteresting will become more and more beautiful with each hearing as you further penetrate its beauty. Great and good music is part of God’s truth, and is to be enjoyed among his gracious gifts to us. Without question, music is one of the “things [that] are true … honest … just … pure … lovely … and of good report” of which the Apostle speaks in Philippians 4:8. On repeated hearing, the layman can get a great deal from Bach, Brahms, Mozart, and even from contemporary composers whose idiom may at first seem strange.

After all, what does any artist, musical or otherwise, do? He tries to communicate some aspect of his own experience. If this is a deeply felt experience, sharing it can be helpful and moving to the rest of us. Some men are very great composers because they felt deeply, lived intensely, and had the technical expertise to express in music some of the inmost life of the soul and spirit. Every time I play the Sonata on the 94th Psalm by Reubke (a little-known composer whose principal legacy is this one masterpiece, since he died at the age of twenty-four), I am aware that he is expressing in tone the spiritual state that the old mystics called “the dark night of the soul.” Through music he is saying things that are incredibly deep and moving and that could not be put in words.

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What has just been said of Reubke brings us close to the very raison d’être of music. There would be no need for music if it did not go beyond, above, and beneath words in its communication. This applies to vocal as well as to instrumental music, for if a composer chooses to set a text to music, the reason must be that he feels he can intensify its meaning and deepen its significance. Great music, then, is simply the deep thought of the composer expressed in tone. It may be a composition for organ, for piano, or for any other instrument or combination of instruments. It may be a piece for solo voice or for a large chorus. The composer sets his music in the medium he thinks will best serve it. And we as hearers have the privilege and responsibility to listen to what he has to say.

Coming back to the place and use of music in worship, let me observe that we are missing much blessing if we do not seek to use the best, for who can deny that only the best is good enough for God? There is, of course, variety in respect to the best. Granted that there are some “best” gospel hymns that speak with integrity to the heart, do not the profound utterances of, say, a Johann Sebastian Bach, who expressed out of his heart the deep things of God, also have a place? The one is very easily grasped. And nobody should condemn a true but simple hymn because even a child can understand its message. The other is not so easily grasped. Dare we condemn it merely because of this? Are we to deny ourselves the rich experience of entering into the spiritual insights of Bach’s great Christian mind simply because to do this takes time and effort?

Music in evangelical circles is in something of a predicament. We hear third-rate music in church; therefore we tend to enjoy the same music in the home. Our children are raised hearing in church and home only this kind of music, and the cycle perpetuates itself. But this could be changed.

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An Ennobling Melody

Stop at a record store today and buy, for example, a good recording of the Brahms First Symphony. If you are timid, do not even listen to it all at once. Try the slow movement first. This is not deep; it is merely heavenly. Oh, it may not seem quite so accessible as “In the Garden” or “Ivory Palaces,” but I promise that after two or three hearings you will be humming bits of it. Or try the last movement. You will find a tune there so vigorous and so ennobling that you will wonder why nobody ever put words to it and made it a hymn, as has indeed been done to tunes of other of the masters. Its very virility may spoil you for some of the lesser stuff that you have been putting up with.

After a few weeks of this, you will be won over. You may even go to your church organist and ask him to play, if not a Brahms symphony (since that requires a large orchestra to do it justice), at least something of comparable musical value. And there is plenty. Bach, Mendelssohn, Franck, and Brahms, to name only a few—all wrote magnificently for organ, and their music is highly appropriate for use in church.

But listening to music is not the only way to enjoy it. Even more rewarding is the experience of making music. Of all the uses of leisure, very few are more enjoyable and worthwhile than the practice of music through singing or playing an instrument. Aside from the example of a consistent Christian life and a sound education, parents can give children few more lasting gifts than the opportunity to learn a musical instrument. And, contrary to American custom, let boys as well as girls have their chance at lessons; significantly enough, all the great composers have been men. Only a tiny minority of children will become professional musicians, and very few indeed will become highly accomplished amateurs. Talent is inevitably selective, and the gifted alone will continue. Yet even limited experience of making music is beneficial.

Moreover, adults should not rule out their participation in music. Many a man or woman finds joy in even very modest competence on an instrument. And membership in church choirs and in some fine choral organizations enables one to take part in bringing alive the glorious pages of such works as Handel’s Messiah, Haydn’s Creation, or Mendelssohn’s Elijah.

Let us stop feeding our musical sensibilities on ashes. In our lives and in our worship let us have music that is worthy of the Lord who bought us with his precious blood. He is the Author of life, and he is the Master Composer whose music flows through the men he has inspired. Let us rejoice in the gift of music, and let us learn to use it more fully to the glory of God.

Robert Elmore, organist of the Central Moravian Church in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, holds the degree of Mus.B. from the University of Pennsylvania (where he served as associate professor and vice-chairman of the Department of Music), L.H.D. from Moravian College, and LL.D. from Alderson-Broaddus College. He is also an Associate of the Royal College of Music and a Licentiate of the Royal Academy of Music (England).

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