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Discussion about Christian rap with Shai Linne: Musical Analysis (Rebuttal)

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 rebuttal to my answer to his fourth question and my reply.

Shai_Bio-300x300Thanks for your musical analysis, Scott. It’s interesting to view music through the eyes (and ears) of someone from a different background with the training you have. I was somewhat surprised that you ascribed general moral goodness to a Hip-hop instrumental. I find that encouraging, because it tells me that you were trying to overlook your own biases in order to give it a fair assessment. So thank you for that. However, I can’t really rejoice in your assessment because, while you were able to describe what was happening musically, your judgments about what it expressed (ambiguity, uncertainty, tension, agitation, etc.) are completely subjective. If one were to explore why you thought the music expressed those things, the answer could ultimately be traced back to your cultural conditioning and the associative value that you place on the arrangement of certain sounds. We all do this, by the way. Minor keys, strings and rhythmic climaxes are strongly associated with ideas like “ominous” and “foreboding” in our culture. But that meaning is not inherent to the sounds (or arrangement of sounds) themselves. I dispute the notion of a “natural meaning” of music, as though instrumental music can only mean one thing.

As for Steve Green’s performance of “A Mighty Fortress”, I was surprised by your answer. In previous responses, you have continuously stressed the importance of non-verbal communication. You’ve said things like

“Scripture’s principles concerning communication apply to all forms of communication like body language or facial expressions (even a “look” can express pride [Prov 6:17]), not just propositions”


“tone of voice is not just a tool of communication; it is part of the communication itself. How I say something to my children, my wife, my boss, or my God is just as important as what I say to them because how I say something is part of the communication.”


“When we’re talking about music, we’re not talking about words and notes on a page; we’re talking about moral human performance. And that’s what I am primarily concerned about: how do particular styles of music and performance shape God’s truth?”

Because of that repeated, consistent emphasis, I would have expected you to spend much more time than you did on Steve Green’s body language during his performance. If one were to re-watch the video from 2:25 on and mute the sound, I’m sure they could make all kinds of assessments about what his facial expressions and gestures were communicating. If, as you say, how he is saying the words is just as important (from a moral standpoint) as what he’s saying, why not spend more time on that in your analysis? For the record, Green’s performance is one of my favorite renditions of that song. I’m just asking you to apply the standards that you have been so adamant about in this discussion to his performance. Since “Scripture’s principles of communication apply to all forms of communication”, what would you say about the morality of his non-verbal communication?

Scott-thumb-300x300Thanks, Shai. You insist that my analysis of the music is subjective. If by subjective you mean that the analysis is my interpretation of the music influenced by my knowledge, study, experiences, and observations, then of course you’re right. It is impossible to not be subjective. Even our interpretation of the truths of Scripture is always subjective.

But I suspect you actually mean something more like “relative.” You insist that my analysis of the music is relative and not applicable to anyone else because you believe it to be based upon “cultural conditioning and the associative value that [I] place on the arrangement of certain sounds.”

My musical analysis is not relative for at least two reasons. First, as I’ve articulated before, my analysis was based upon what the music itself naturally means (universal) rather than how it makes me feel (relative). In other words, I analyzed the object (the music) rather than the subject (my feelings). I assure you, I had individual feelings and associations when listening to the music that were particular to me and my experiences that I did not mention in my analysis.

Second, since I based my analysis on what the music naturally does based on its function in the created order and universal human physiology, the analysis had nothing to do with a particular cultural background or conditioning.

For example, things like tendency tones, resolution to a tonal center (or lack thereof),1 pitch range,2 tempo, interval relationships,3 meter, and rhythm do what they do because of their correspondence within universal acoustic and physiological laws that God “programmed” into his creation.4 Thus, this level of musical expression transcends time, culture, background, and personal experiences. They are certainly based on associations, but some associations are universal.

So what I said about the minor mode, lack of harmonic resolution, and wide intervalic leaps contributing to a sense of ambiguity and tension is not something cultural conditioned but rather universal since, as Leonard Bernstein explained, these kinds of musical elements are rooted in the naturally-occurring harmonic series, which he calls “an order preordained by nature and ruled by universal physical laws.”5 What I said about the beat of the music is universal because it corresponds to the rhythms of life, things like human gait, heart beat, etc.

Contrary to what you (and most evangelicals) may assume, consensus upon musicologists today is that there are far more naturally occurring universals in musical meaning than culturally-conditioned differences. The only reason some secular philosophers resist acknowledging universals (which they’ve done only since Edward Hanslick’s On the Beautiful in Music in 1854) is that if they didn’t, they would have to also acknowledge a created order, universal morality, and by extension, a higher being. They refuse to admit these ideas, and so they must reason themselves out of musical universals.

But in the last 50 years or so, musicologists have recognized that they really can’t get away from admitting universal musical meaning, even on empirical grounds alone, and thus some (Like Bernstein) have to at least acknowledge a “musical monogenesis,” that is, a common origin for the musical principles rooted in the harmonic series.6 Ironically, because he recognizes universals empirically but has no philosophical basis for it, this agnostic Jew has to admit that universal properties in music may “issue from the mouth of God.”7

And I would submit that the reason today Christians resist acknowledging universals in musical expression–when Christians have always acknowledged them–is that they do not want to admit that some kinds of music are inappropriate for Christian expression–again, something Christians have always believed.

As to my analysis of Steve Green, fair enough; I was already over my word count, so I tried to restrain my analysis!

But I certainly could (and should) also evaluate his body language and facial expressions. At 2:25, for example, Mr. Green’s body language communicates strength and a momentary flicker of anger. The rest of the performance is primarily a mix of strength and wonder. Mostly fitting to the lyrical content, if not a bit dramatic.

Here’s the reason this is all so important. If musical meaning were entirely relative and based only on cultural conditioning, as you insist, then biblical commands like Paul’s in Philippians 4:8 are meaningless. How can we “think on” things that are “lovely,” for example, if what is “lovely” is merely relative? Why would God tell us to worship him “reverently” (Heb 12:28-29) if that is only culturally conditioned? Trying to determine what behavior is peaceful or a “fit of anger” (Gal. 5:19-22) is pointless if these expressions are based only on personal background.

If subjectivity always proves relativity, then nothing is absolute.

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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. “Almost everywhere there is some sense of the tonic, some kind of a tonal center in music. Almost everywhere music establishes a  tendency. It seems to be going somewhere, whatever its terms are, and the joy that the performers of that music feel has to do with the way in which that tendency is realized. To go on, music in almost every tradition seems to have a beginning and an end. Everywhere there is development of some kind and form of some kind. There is pattern, there are formulae, there are special signals that all the practitioners of a particular music recognize, whatever the music is. These seem to be as predictable as linguistic forms.” – David P. McAllester, “Some Thoughts on Universals in World Music” Ethnomusicology 15, no. 3 (1971), 379-380. []
  2. The basilar membrane, located in the inner ear, vibrates according to the frequency (cycles per second) characteristic of sound waves impinging on the tympanic membrane (ear drum). The configuration of these vibrations is so complex that it is difficult to understand how the auditory nerve transmits unambiguous psychological information about pitch and loudness from the physical information represented in the basilar membrane’s vibrations. Modern auditory theory suggests two overlapping mechanisms for pitch perception in humans. For vibration rates of 100-20,000 Hz, (cycles/second), the place of maximum vibration on the basilar membrane seems to be a good predictor of the pitch we hear. For vibration rates of 20-1,000 Hz, the rate of vibration of the entire membrane seems to code pitch. Note that there is an overlap of coding between 100-1,000 Hz, which is precisely the frequency range over which human hearing is most accurate. This pitch perception dual-mechanism is a good candidate for a universal in human auditory perception, and has many implications for the design of musical instruments. – Dane L. Harwood, “Universals in Music” Ethnomusicology 20, no. 3 (1976), 525. []
  3. The kinds of relationships that can be perceived and processed by the human mind are limited by neuro-cognitive universals. And these constraints account for many features of music–non-Western as well as Western. To take an obvious case, the minimum distance in frequency between pitches in a scale depends on human auditory discrimination. As a result, intervals smaller than a half-step almost always serve to inflect structural tones. – Leonard B. Meyer, “A Universe of Universals” The Journal of Musicology 16, no. 1 (1998), 6. []
  4. Acoustical stimuli affect the perception, cognition, and hence practice of music only through the constraining action of bio-psychological ones.” – Leonard B. Meyer, “A Universe of Universals” The Journal of Musicology 16, no. 1 (1998), 6. []
  5. 1984), 3–7. 40 Leonard Bernstein, The Unanswered Question: Six Talks at Harvard (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1976), 19. []
  6. Bernstein, 19. []
  7. Bernstein, 16 []