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Correcting Categories, Part 2 – Emotional Metaphor

My goal in this series is to help believers apply the Bible to their musical choices in life and worship. My contention is, however, that believers today approach the issue of musical choices with certain errant foundational presuppositions that need to be corrected before they can rightly apply the Bible in this area. So my task in this paper is to address a few categories of thought that inform our approach when applying the Bible to music and suggest a few ways that we may need to correct our thinking.

Communication Through Music

Emotional Metaphor

Music is a medium of communication. In particular, music communicates by means of emotional metaphor. In other words, by using symbols, music can communicate various moods and emotions. Metaphors are essentially associations. My love is like a red, red rose because my love reminds me of the beauty and simplicity of a rose and therefore I associate my beautiful, simple love with a rose. In this sense, all musical communication is associative. The music is not emotion; it is merely symbols of emotion. It does not create emotion. It expresses what musicologist Susan Langer calls “ideas of feeling.”1 Music communicates certain moods and emotions to us because we associate its symbols with various emotional states.

We see this kind of association implied in Scripture:

Job 30.31 “Therefore my harp is tuned to mourning, And my flute to the sound of those who weep.”

Isaiah 16.11 “Therefore my heart intones like a harp for Moab And my inward feelings for Kir-hareseth.”

Jeremiah 48.36 “Therefore My heart wails for Moab like flutes; My heart also wails like flutes for the men of Kir-heres.”

In other words, the Bible uses the sounds of musical instruments as metaphors to describe certain emotional states.

Conventional Association

Some metaphorical meaning is purely conventional association. The colors red, white, and blue possess no inherent association with American patriotism, but since they are the colors of our flag, such colors possess symbolic representation of pride in our nation. Raising one’s arm at a straight, 45° angle in front of one’s body does not possess inherent association with fascism and tyranny, but because such a bodily gesture was the Nazi salute to Hitler, it carries with it symbolic representation of terrible times.

Some musical communication occurs because of these kinds of conventional associations. Sometimes these associations are true for particular individuals or small groups; other times these associations exist for entire cultures or time periods. Sometimes such associations eventually fade away, while in some few cases they last for a long period of time. For instance, the final section of Gioachini Rossini’s overture to the opera William Tell is often associated with a masked “Lone Ranger” riding his horse Silver. There is nothing, of course, inherent in this music without lyrics to automatically suggest such a picture, but because those musical phrases were used as the theme for the Lone Ranger show, we associate those musical symbols with such images. In times past, the tune austrian hymn was associated with Naziism. There is nothing inherent in the tune to suggest terror and despotism, but since that tune was used for the Nazi anthem during WWII, people who lived during that time often associated those musical symbols with those ideas.

Natural Association

On the other hand, some metaphorical meaning is natural association. Dark clouds naturally signify a storm because they naturally accompany a storm. A symbol of a lightning bolt naturally signifies electricity because it is the shape naturally associated with electricity. A frown naturally signifies sadness because it naturally accompanies the feeling of sadness. In order for symbolic meaning to be natural, the association between the symbol and the object must occur naturally in human experience.

Some musical communication occurs because of these kinds of natural associations. Combinations of dynamics, tone colors, rhythms, and tempos can combine to mimic the natural way we feel inwardly or physically respond outwardly when we experience certain emotional states. For instance, there is a reason Pachelbel’s Canon in D is played on peaceful, serene occasions like the prelude to a wedding and not before a football game; the musical symbols naturally communicate peace and serenity — not pep and excitement — because they mimic how we feel when we are peaceful. There is a reason Sousa marches are played at football games and not at weddings; the musical symbols naturally communicate rousing enthusiasm appropriate for a sporting event and not a marriage ceremony. There is a reason some Pink Floyd song is going to be played at a strip club and not Pachelbel’s Canon or a Sousa march; the musical symbols naturally communicate the kinds of feelings occurring there.

Perhaps the best illustration of this kind of natural metaphorical communication in music is with film scores. Certain musical scores are composed for movie scenes based on the kinds of moods and emotions the producers want to enhance with the given scene, and they know that such communication will occur with any audience regardless of age, demographic, nationality, gender or culture because all humans share basic emotional and physical makeup.

Music is often referred to as “heightened speech.” Musical forms evolved as more complex forms of natural emotional intonation. There is a natural connection between musical communication and what naturally occurs with our voices as we experience certain emotional states. In this way natural metaphors are transcultural, because every man shares a culture of humanity.

Specific musical styles or individual songs always possess some natural meanings and often possess various conventional meaning, both by way of metaphorical association. At the very heart of all musical meaning is the natural meaning it communicates by way of natural association with universal, common human experience. But built upon that natural meaning are various conventional associations. Often such conventional associations will correspond to the natural meaning, as with the natural expressions of peacefulness communicated by Pachelbel’s Canon that give rise to the conventional association of the piece with weddings, or such as the natural expressions of sexuality communicated by Pink Floyd that give rise to the conventional associations of that music to immoral living.

Sometimes, however, conventional associations can override natural associations. For instance, although the tune austrian hymn naturally communicates noble moods because of its natural association with how we feel when we are proud or stately, its conventional association with Nazi Germany created new meaning during WWII that overpowered the positive meaning with that which was quite negative. What must be remembered on this point, however, is that when conventional associations overpower natural associations, it always happens in a negative direction and never in a positive one.

Perhaps an illustration will help here. If you are in the company of a happy person, his happiness will be communicated to you through his facial features, bodily gestures, and tone of voice. Those symbols are naturally associated with the state of happiness because that is exactly how you act when you are happy. However, even if a given individual looks and sounds positive, your personal relationship with him may cause you to have a negative feeling about him merely because of some negative association. On the other hand, an angry person will communicate his anger to you through facial features, bodily gestures and tone of voice, but no amount of positive conventional association can contradict such expressions due to the nature of negative emotions. Exposure to music is very similar to exposure to humans and their emotions.

In summary, music communicates by means of metaphorical association, and such associations can be either conventional or natural depending upon whether or not they correspond to something that occurs naturally in all human experience.

Add a lyric to a musical selection, and we now have two additional layers of meaning: the propositional content of the text and the poetic “mood,” which communicate in very similar ways to music. What must be remembered here is that metaphorical meaning, if it is natural, always trumps propositional meaning. For instance, a frown, furrowed brow, and loud tone of voice (natural metaphors of anger), when accompanied by the propositional phrase “I love you” will always communicate a negative, or at least ironic, meaning no matter how positive the propositional content.

About Scott Aniol

Scott Aniol is the founder and Executive Director of Religious Affections Ministries. He is director of doctoral worship studies at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he teaches courses in ministry, worship, hymnology, aesthetics, culture, and philosophy. He is the author of Worship in Song: A Biblical Approach to Music and Worship, Sound Worship: A Guide to Making Musical Choices in a Noisy World, and By the Waters of Babylon: Worship in a Post-Christian Culture, 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 four children. Views posted here are his own and not necessarily those of his employer.

  1. Susan Langer, “The Work of Art as a Symbol,” in John Hospers, Introductory Readings in Aesthetics (New York: Free Press, 1969), 174. []