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Form and content are not easily separable

Debates over worship usually center on the issue of form. “Don’t elevate form over content,” the progressives cry. “Content is what is important; it really doesn’t matter what aesthetic forms you use.”

What I intend to demonstrate in this essay is the fact that separating form and content is not as simple as many progressives would imply. Indeed, form is an essential part of the content.

First, we need to make a distinction between content and form (I’ll narrow the discussion to worship songs here). Content is simply the basic idea communicated in the song, often summarized in propositions. So, for example, the content of a hymn like “Holy, Holy, Holy” would be the holiness of God, the Trinity, praise, God’s mercy, etc.

However, unless you just list God’s attributes in that way, form is always involved. In fact, it inaccurate, as some would imply, to suggest that content is the text of a song and form is the music. Even the way words are put together to form sentences and stanzas involves form.

In other words, it impossible to be free of form.

Form is the way in which something is shaped or presented. A form takes the basic content and shapes it in a certain way.

Redcorn VasesPerhaps the easiest way to understand this is to consider various vessels. When you pour a liquid into a vessel, the liquid takes the shape of the vessel. The essence of the content does not change, but its shape changes.

With any art, form always shapes the content in such a way that it communicates something about that content. Form doesn’t communicate in the same way as the content itself; form communicates to the imagination and the affections. Form changes the “feel” or perception of the content.

Sometimes these ideas are difficult to grasp with something more abstract like poetry or music, so let me use a more concrete example to illustrate the significance of form.

Graphic designers use font faces to communicate different things beyond mere words. For instance, let’s use the word, “cool.” “Cool” can mean a couple of different things. It can mean the opposite of hot, or it can mean calm, or it can mean hip. I can use form to communicate which definition I mean:

Now let’s take it a step further and consider the word, “God.” Form communicates our imagination of what God is like:

Each of these font faces–these forms–both expresses and shapes an imagination of what God is like.

I use the example of type-face only because it’s visual, and it is easier to grasp how form shapes content with these examples than with poetry or music. But let’s move now to content and form within songs.

There are several different ways that content can be shaped within a song. The first is simply with what words are chosen to communicate the message. Words are important. How we put them together into phrases is important. Words are important because different words have different connotations–different “feelings” attached to them.

For example, in describing my grandfather to you, I might say that he is ancient. Or I may say that he is elderly. Or frail. Or rickety. Or seasoned. Each of these words has basically the same meaning of old, but each word conjures up different kinds of images in your mind about my grandfather.

Poetic meter and rhyme scheme also affect the “feel” of a song text. My favorite example of this is to compare the different “feelings” between the original way “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas” was penned and a slightly altered way. Read both of these aloud, paying close attention to the natural syllabic stress, and see if you anticipate different content to these poems:

‘Twas the NIGHT before CHRISTmas and ALL through the HOUSE
Not a CREAture was STIRring, not Even MOUSE.

‘Twas CHRISTmas EVE, the HOUSE was STILL,
And NOT a CREAture STIRRED.

The original version uses a triplet pattern that gives a feeling of “skippiness” and fun. The second, however, uses a duple meter, which naturally slows down the rhythm and comes across far more serious. Combining a serious mater with such content about a quiet Christmas Eve, we might expect the Grinch to show up at the house rather than Jolly Old St. Nick!

Musical form shapes content in very similar was to poetic form. Music communicates by mimicking natural human expression, and therefore whether or not someone understands the science of music, musical form shapes their perception of the content. Melody, harmony, and rhythm combine to shape basic content by intensifying human emotion, physical movement, and naturally-occurring acoustical principles in ways that are naturally, and often subconsciously, discerned by any member of the human race (and sometimes even animals!).

Finally, how a song is performed also contributes to form. The tempo (the speed at which the song is performed), dynamics (loudness or softness), density (amount of voices or instruments played at once), and timbre (the tone color of various voices or instruments) all contribute to the feel of the song and shape the song’s content.

Even the way in which an individual sings can shape the content of that song in drastic ways. Just with how a person uses his voice, he can shape a song of love for God to sound reverent, casual, romantic, or flippant.

Consider, as an illustration, the infamous example of Marilyn Monroe singing “Happy Birthday to President Kennedy. The words she sang were certainly not controversial, but her tone, body language, and performance style created a scandal. Notice how even Wikipedia describes the event:

“Happy Birthday, Mr. President” was a song sung by actress/singer Marilyn Monroe on Saturday, May 19, 1962, for then-President of the United States, John F. Kennedy, at a celebration for his forty-fifth birthday, ten days before the actual day of his 45th birthday, Tuesday, May 29. Sung in a sultry voice, Monroe sang the traditional “Happy Birthday to You” lyrics, with “Mr. President” inserted as Kennedy’s name. . . . Afterwards, President Kennedy came on stage and joked about the song, saying, “I can now retire from politics after having had Happy Birthday sung to me in such a sweet, wholesome way,” alluding to Monroe’s delivery, her racy dress, and her general image as a sex symbol.

In this case, the textual content and even the musical form itself were far from offensive. Yet Monroe’s vocal performance, delivery, dress, and image communicated subtextual messages that were missed by nobody. I raise this point only to illustrate that performance style shapes content.

The point here is that form matters because there is no such thing as content without form, and since form shapes the perception, imagination, and “feel” of content, the forms used in worship are very important. Not all forms are appropriate for expressing God’s truth since not all imaginations of God’s truth are accurate.

Scott Aniol

About Scott Aniol

Scott Aniol is the founder and Executive Director of Religious Affections Ministries. He is on faculty at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he teaches courses in worship, hymnology, aesthetics, culture, and philosophy. He has written two books, dozens of articles, and speaks around the country in churches and conferences. He is an elder in his church in Fort Worth, TX where he resides with his wife and two children.

14 Responses to Form and content are not easily separable

  1. Casey McCarthy says:

    Scott, you have brought up some important issues that need to be addressed in the church today. My experience has been that pastors desire to use musical style as an attraction to bring people into the worship service and don’t even see that form is an issue. I wonder how it would be possible to even get a dialogue started about Biblical truth and form.

    I have also heard an argument for the form of worship music using water and vessels. Maybe you have heard this before, too. The Gospel and/or Biblical truth is compared to water and the vessel it is carried in is compared to the style of music used in worship. The argument says that water used to be carried in earthen jars but now is transported in plastic bottles. So, the point that is made is that God’s Word and/or the Gospel remains the same, but how we communicate that truth (particularly in the context of worship music) does change. Sometimes it is even advocated that it needs to change. So any ideas on how to respond to that kind of thinking?

  2. Casey, I believe it goes back to a pre-modern understanding of form and content where the two are inseparable. In the water analogy the is a clear separation of form- the container, and content- the water. Trying to make that analogy work is by default conceding the position that form and content are inseparable. Its not just the water that must go in the plastic bottle but the earthen jar as well. I suppose if the plastic bottle were meticulously crafted so that the earthen jar which contained water were to fit inside of it, we would have a “proper” contextualization because the new bottle takes the shape of the form and content of the original.

  3. Casey McCarthy says:

    So that would link back to our discussion this morning in class, that we would need to attack the premise that the content and form is separable, because the analogy of the water and vessels, the way I used them, presupposes them to be separable, when in fact, they are not.

  4. Martin says:

    Thanks Scott – very helpful illustrations.

  5. Scott Aniol Scott Aniol says:

    Great question, Casey. Metaphors have their limits, and the metaphor of a vessel with water is one of those.

    Robert is certainly on to something. I would also add this to the analogy: the water itself is not the truth. Rather, the water in a certain shape is the truth.

    In other words, if we want to express biblical truth, we use words and sentences (water) in a certain biblically-inspired shape (the form). The vessel (the aesthetic tool) is the means by which we are communicating the truth.

    Thus, to use a vessel of a different shape is to actually change the truth.

  6. Scott Aniol Scott Aniol says:

    This is why, by the way, the font illustration above may be most helpful. You change the font, and you are actually changing the sense of the word.

  7. Hi Scott,

    Very good. Very helpful.

    People already know what you’ve written. The problem isn’t knowledge, but rebellion. Scoffers walking after their own lust become uniformitarians, not because of the arguments, but because of the lust.

  8. Nammi Kim says:

    Reading this article makes me remind of different performances by different musicians of the same musical piece. When we consider a performance style as a form in respect of reproducing a particular music, each performer represents the music with his/her own ideas and expressions (as the example of Marilyn Monroe). While many musicians’ playing concentrates fully on manifesting the contents of the piece, certain performers appear to cause the audiences to become more interested in their somewhat exaggerated performing actions than the music itself. Even if, probably, there is no precise criteria which can identify the differences between the two, can we designate the performance of the latter case as great? I don’t think so. Delivering its content in a most deliberate way as far as possible should be the first objective of applying a form to music.

  9. Lori Danielson says:

    The water analogy has always been difficult for me to process. Pouring water into a container doesn’t change the substance of the water. It only changes the shape to which the water is conformed. Water is a substance and not form. Changing the shape of the water doesn’t change the substance of the water, it is still water. The essence of the water is unchanged. If we freeze the water, the ice will retain its shape until it melts. This still doesn’t change the essence of the water. If we take an ice cube and place it in a bucket, it will retain its shape as long as it remains frozen.

    I wonder if the statement “function dictates form” would be another question to add to the mix? In regards to architecture, the function of the building has to determine in a major way what sort of aesthetic space can be designed. Carrying that across to music, we have to determine what form of music is appropriate to fit the function for which it is intended. The cultural associations of certain styles of music also need to be brought into the equation.

  10. Nammi Kim says:

    The primary reason why we use a container for water is to safely preserve and deliver the water to a person in need. If we become fully satisfied with this function of the container, we probably do not have to place a high value on its characteristics (i. e. shape, color, quality of the material, etc.). What makes us to have a desire to consider an aesthetic value of the container? Projection of water or attraction to people? The answer of this question might give an idea of why we necessitate a particular type of a container.

  11. Wen-Chuan Lin says:

    Just want to add 2 cents to that water illustration: it is true that the essence of water doesn’t change even if its shape has changed when pulled into different vessel; however, not all containers are suitable to contain water. Some containers with holes on the bottom or on the sides can only carry water in solid form; other containers may not be able to hold hot water for they are easy to melt in high temperature. This is how I see some art forms just cannot carry the Biblical truth because they are unsuitable.

  12. Wen-Chuan Lin says:

    I agree with Scott that it is difficult to separate form from content when considering art in worship. However, it is also very important for worshipers to be able to distinct content from form to know how to express and communicate the essence of worship. That is, when a worshipper sings a song, the priority shall be the presentation of the text, not the articulation of its musical form. It is true that good musical form carries and enhances the text, but the focus has to still be the text. Moreover, if the musical form shall overpower the text inescapable, then the musical form is not suitable for the text in a way.

  13. Lori Danielson says:

    I also believe that not all “carriers” or “forms” are suitable/appropriate for transporting Biblical truth. However, it doesn’t change the truth. There are some universal limits and yet many times it is the associations that cause inappropriateness. Other people, without those associations, would not see the the carrier as unsuitable. Is there room for redeeming carriers? Augustine thought we could take back from the pagans music and literature they had appropriated. ““We should not avoid music just because of pagan superstition if we can take from it anything useful for comprehending the Sacred Scriptures.”

  14. I have appreciated one of Scott’s statements “Not all forms are appropriate for expressing God’s truth since not all imaginations of God’s truth are accurate.” It is significant to examine every song (hymn) we sing at church whether the text of the song reflects God’s truth. Also I am with Wen-Chuan, who says that it is true that good musical form carries and enhances the text, but the focus has to still be the text.

    However, I am wondering if there is any particular style or form of art that reflects the biblical truth only, and that Christians should use for Sunday service or for their art creativity? Another questions would be “Does it have to add text (the Scripture, theoretical, or biblical lyrics) to music or any art form in order to present God’s truth?” Is any sacred music, which is written for instruments only (no text in it) under a biblical title, not appropriate to be performed for worship service?” (e.g., Messiaen’s “Meditations on the mystery of the Holy Trinity” for organ.)

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