Shai Linne and I are having a conversation between Christian brothers about Christian rap. This post will not make sense unless you start at the beginning of this discussion and read through all the posts. You can find the other posts in this discussion on this page or on the right hand side of this post. This is Shai’s fourth question to me and my answer.
Scott, in a previous post, you said “Since music is part of our conduct, we should discern what music expresses [holy behavior] just as we evaluate tone of voice, attitude, body language, etc.” You’ve also spoken of ”morally good music (with or without lyrics)” and you have insisted that “since music is communication, music is moral.” I have two pieces of music that I would like you to evaluate. One is a hip-hop instrumental.
Using your discernment, please tell me what this music is expressing, whether or not its morally good, and why. The other is a video of a performance.
Please do the same for the video.
Let me review how I (or anyone) can evaluate what music means and thus determine its morality. First, we must distinguish between conventional (culturally-conditioned) meaning and natural meaning. I’ll set aside the conventional meaning for the purposes of this analysis since it is not necessarily universal. What I will assess is the natural meaning.
Second, by natural meaning I mean not what the composer intends or what the listener feels. Rather, music carries meaning naturally based on its resemblance to “emotion characteristics in appearance.” In other words, music sounds like (and feels like) what emotion looks like (and feels like).
Once one has determined the meaning (or meanings) of a piece of music on this natural level, he should ask the question, “Is this good? Does the Bible praise these kinds of expressions or condemn them?” Since a Christian’s behavior should be holy (morally good), he should embrace musical behavior that reflects the morally good and reject the musical behavior that reflects morally bad.
Beyond this, the Christian should also evaluate the conventional meaning, avoiding associations that will harm the gospel or cause a weaker brother to sin. Finally, if a Christian intends to use the music for communicating biblical messages, he must make sure that even what is morally good is also fitting for the truth of God’s holy Word.
One more thing: I’ve made the point several times that I think anyone can discern musical meaning at this level without a technical musical analysis (just like we can determine what tone of voice and body language mean without knowing exactly why), but I also want to demonstrate the musicological foundation as well. So in my analysis below, I will include a bit of technical jargon, but I don’t want to give the impression that knowledge of the technical is necessary to determine meaning.
On to the two examples.1
The foundation of “Judge of All the Earth” is the four note, descending base progression: C-sharp, A, B, and G-sharp, which repeats 36 times with minimal variation or harmonic development. In the context of c-sharp minor, there are no tendency tones in the chords built upon this ostinato and thus no clear linear progression. This lack of direction or resolution gives the foundation a feeling of ambiguity and uncertainty, features intensified by the minor mode, which also naturally contributes to a sense of tension. These repeated elements, combined with the low register, synth instrumentation, and descending pattern create a sense of foreboding.
The minimal melodic activity there is, with wide intervalic leaps and lack of direction or resolution, enhances this perception.
Underneath this all is the repetitive rhythmic pattern, emphasizing the off-beats in contrast to the natural metric emphasis, which adds a feeling of agitation. This is particularly potent as the piece progresses. Since there is no harmonic or melodic development, the only real development in the song is a steady intensification of dynamics and density that climaxes in the replacement of all these elements with bursts of rhythmic, off-beat shouting.
Putting this all together, the music expresses a feeling of increasingly agitated, ominous foreboding. For the musically untrained, I would suggest imagining what kind of movie scene this music would fit, such as one in which something dark or sinister is about to happen.
I would say in itself, what this music generally expresses is morally good since expressing these things is not necessarily forbidden in Scripture. I would offer caution, however, that this kind of undeveloped repetition tends to create a numbing effect, similar to how some Eastern music is designed to create a hypnotic trance. This kind of effect, especially as a regular diet, would be inadvisable for Christians, in my opinion. Furthermore, to set this up as art, something used to express thoughtful ideas and values, would be a challenge due to the lack of musical depth and dependence upon rhythm and climax as the only developmental techniques. To be fair, I would similarly criticize something from the Western Classical tradition like Ravel’s Boléro, although that work has more musical development than this song.
To the second example. The tune, EIN FEST BURG, is a fitting vehicle for communicating the lyrics of God’s strength and might. The bar form (AAB) allows for enough repetition to make this memorable for congregational singing, yet the Abgesang offers contrast and development that appropriately supports the textual ideas. The iambic metric pattern of the poetry, which naturally expresses strong ideas, is also quite appropriate for the truths. The words chosen are vivid, and the rhymes are not forced or unnatural.
In particular, Mr. Green’s a capella performance allows the theological truths to rise to the surface, without distraction, with only his performance adding to the meaning of the song.
Now a few comments on Green’s performance, since how one performs a tune and text is part of the expression. First, his strong vocal production and lack of melodic embellishment further contributes to the strength and power of God expressed in the lyrics. He mostly emphasizes the natural syllabic stresses in the words (with a few exceptions). In my opinion, the modulations up by half step each stanza tend toward emotional manipulation since there is no musical impetus for those modulations, and this borders on drawing attention away from the truths themselves and instead creating an emotional climax through the use of surface-level gimicks. But overall, I would say this is morally good and mostly appropriate for the truths expressed.
- I would like to thank Timothy Shafer, a friend who teaches at Penn State, who shared with me his own analysis of “Judge of All the Earth,” which I’ve integrated into my own thoughts here. [↩]