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Can biblical principles about music be applied across cultures?

On Saturdays we repost articles from the archives that apply to current issues. The following article deals with the issue of cross-cultural musical meaning. The original article can be found here.


The theme of the latest issue of “Worship Notes,” written by Ron Man, is “Making Musical Choices.” Man writes,

The most consistently asked question of me in my international teaching is about whether a certain type of music is appropriate for use in Christian worship. This is both a difficult and an age-old question.

His feature article provides some helpful advice, but his advice centers only on evaluating the associations of songs. More on that in a moment, but I want to first comment on why he focuses only on associations and not the musical communication itself.

Man’s first point is revealing:

Music itself is fundamentally neutral morally.

OK, when I read a statement like that, I am immediately suspicious of its full implications. But I can agree that “there is nothing inherently moral or immoral about vibrating columns of air.” I can agree especially in light of Man’s second point:

At the same time, in its effects music is extremely powerful affectively and emotionally, and can thus be a force for good or evil.

I would say it very similarly (and have): Music itself does not really possess moral qualities, but because it is a medium of communication, it can affect morality just like any communication medium.

However, it is Man’s third point that really reveals why associations are for him the only significant issue in evaluating songs:

While music may be universal as a special gift of God’s common grace, music is not a “universal language.”

This is clearly an important point for Man since he highlights the statement in a call-out box on the first page. In other words, Man focuses only on a song’s associations because he doesn’t believe that music can communicate universally in any way.

Now, I will be the first to admit that a significant amount of musical meaning is based upon conventional association, meaning that is limited to particular geographies, cultures, and/or time periods.

But I will also strongly insist that at its most basic level, music does carry universal meaning. There are two primary reasons for this assertion:

  1. Musical communication, at its most basic level, is based on the created order. All music, no matter the time or culture, is dependent upon the naturally occurring harmonic series and other universal phenomena of nature. To be sure, lots of culture-bound layers are added on. But fundamentally, music is structured the same way. And all humans have access to the same created order.
  2. All humans share basic, common physiology and communication techniques. To be sure, different cultures express themselves with differing degrees of emotion and gestures and expressions. But at its most fundamental level, all human communication is structured the same way. A smile in West Africa means the same thing as a smile in America. Agitated movements mean the same things in Asia as they do in Germany. And since music, at its most fundamental level, mimics such communication, music can communicate universally.

Of course, the most common way to attempt to debunk any universality to music is by appealing to cross-cultural studies and enthomusicology, and Man is no different:

That common misunderstanding [that music is a “universal language”] has been effectively debunked my modern ethnomusicological studies.

One thing we must acknowledge to begin is that the roots of most sociology, modern anthropology, and by extension ethnomusicology are based on secularist and Darwinist understandings of humankind. To admit to any kinds of universalities would be to admit to a common origin, and a common origin implies a Creator God. So secular ethnomusicologists, like all of us, are starting out with certain anti-Scriptural biases that must be taken into account, such as denial of absolutes or inherent sinfulness within people or cultures. And since Christian enthnomusicology (or, more broadly, “enthnodoxology”) is rooted is these secular theories, we must be careful with such presuppositions.

Even so, let’s examine the test case that Man himself provides. He cites an example from a Canela tribe in Brazil. This song, he argues, sounds to Western ears like a lament. Yet it is really a song of happiness in the Word of God.

What Man fails to recognize, however, is that he may be transmitting his personal, American understanding of “happiness” to the Canela tribe, when their understanding is entirely different.

If Man views “happiness” as light, skippy, care-free, or exuberant, then he’s right: this music sounds nothing like that to any ears. But perhaps what members of the Canela tribe understand by the English word, “happy,” as translated in this Western attempt to notate the song, means something far more sober, more contemplative, and more reverent, sentiments this tune could easily communiate.

Remember, mere words are fundamentally inadequate to express matters of the heart. That is why we have music. The English word “happy” could mean a whole lot of different things to a group of Americans, let alone another culture. Someone chose the American word “happy” to translate pajakry (hy), but as any linguist knows, word-for-word translations are far from accurate.

Perhaps pajakry (hy) means something more like “joyful confidence,” or something similar. The translator chose “happy” because it fit the notation, but perhaps a more literal translation would be something like this: “It is God’s Word that makes us joyfully confident.” Does this song carry that meaning?

Well certainly the tonalities of this song are quite foreign to Western ears. But unfamiliar tonality does not disprove universality of emotive meaning. Even with the strange, and even (to my ears) unpleasant sounds of the song, I can certainly hear “joyful confidence” communicated. “Light, skippy, care-free, exuberance?” Certainly not. But neither does this song communicate anger, for instance, or rage, or depression, or even celebration. It sounds to my Western ears as communicating something firm, reverent, peaceful, and steady. It sounds like the Word of God to me.

You see, what those who appeal to ethnomusicology to discredit musical universality are doing is exactly what they accuse us of: they are interpreting the language of another culture through their own lenses. They interpret pajakry (hy) to mean what they understand “happy” to mean.

This song mentioned above illustrates perfectly what I was arguing in this post. Here is a Brazilian tune that does not in any way to any ears sound like it is communicating sinful messages. It sounds completely foreign to me, but not sinful. So, this tune seems perfect for the expression of joy and confidence in the Word of God in that culture. And it is not Western!

Incidently, Dave Doran provides another excellent example that makes my point in a slightly different way. Doran’s point is to compare they way that brides in two different cultures walk as they enter a marriage ceremony. In America, the bride enters with a smile on her face (or in the case of the video, dancing). In Tanzania, the bride enters slowly with head bowed and a frown.

Now if Man viewed this issue in the same way that he interpreted the different music, he’d have to say, “Wow, look at how differently these two cultures express happiness on the occasion of a wedding! In America happiness is expressed by smiles. In Tanzania happiness is expressed by slow walking and frowning. I guess gestures and facial features aren’t universal.”

Yet it’s not that gestures and facial features aren’t universal; they are. It’s that these two cultures view the same event differently, and so they’re actually expressing different emotions. Both brides want to honor their parents, but since their cultures view such honoring differently, their expressions are different. Doran explains:

In an American wedding, the bride is expected to be happy and celebratory—it is her big day and for her to be sad would not be a good sign. Her wedding, usually, is a big party thrown by her parents as they hand her off to her groom. In a Tanzanian wedding, the bride is expected to put on an air of sadness in order to not dishonor her parents as she leaves their home. If she were too happy, it would reflect badly on them.

So Doran is absolutely right when he concludes,

I despise cultural relativism, but learning how to apply the same biblical principles within different cultures is not cultural relativism. Or, to put it in terms of weddings, how a bride fulfills the biblical obligation to honor her parents may take very different forms in different cultures.

It’s not that culture is that relative or facial expressions are relative or that music is relative. Differences between cultures don’t prove that. The only thing they prove is that different cultures view the same emotion or the same event in different ways.

Now on another note, back to Man’s helpful discussion of associations in his article. As I mentioned, Man sees associations as significant in the evaluations of song for Christian use:

It is the associations that music carries with it that present the greatest challenge.

He says helpfully,

Beyond just the text sung is the question of the associations that a particular type of music may have in the minds and  hearts of its listeners. This includes the implications of the text, but can go far beyond it (for sometimes texts themselves are changed or “Christianized” in an attempt to make a particular song or style usable in a worship context). If the song (or its style) carries for the hearers unmistakable associations with non-Christian or anti-Christian themes, practices, or lifestyles, than those associations will certainly interfere with people’s worship, making that music inappropriate to use. The desire to be culturally relevant or sensitive does not trump the priority of being faithful to biblical standards and hence being distinctly counter-cultural when necessary.

He then goes on to give principles an examples of how we must evaluate associations before using a song.

What is fascinating for me is how a musical-relativist evangelical sees the significance of associations, while more and more fundamentalists today are completely throwing out any concern about the associations of given songs or styles.

We must evaluate both the intrinsic meaning within music and the potentially negative associations of a song before we adopt it into Christian worship.

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.