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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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Scott Aniol

About Scott Aniol

Scott Aniol is the founder and Executive Director of Religious Affections Ministries. He is Chair of the Worship Ministry Department 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 []

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

  1. Thank you Scott – in my opinion this is your best post so far (thanks for the references on universals!). This is a strong argument for musical appropriateness (although not for sinful music).
    Shai’s comments are disappointing – either he does not follow the on-going discussion or he chose to ignore it. Again, I would argue that even if some of what Scott wrote were not universal, it would still be convention within Western culture, and then the result is the same: we still understand it the same way (universally) within our culture. That sub-cultures do not is either due to lack of training or a conscious denial of what things mean to the larger/background culture.

  2. Martin, I think you nailed it when you said, “This is a strong argument for musical appropriateness (although not for sinful music).” This is where I think this whole hullabaloo goes off in the wrong direction though. If it isn’t sinful, why is it an issue? This whole issue splits churches and has caused Christian brothers to separate, and it is shameful. Scott argues for universals, but he is only talking about universals in feelings (I don’t think it is as black and white as he makes it out to be though…I agree with Shai that it depends on your background and culture.). The whole conversation moves from sinful (when it can’t be shown that it is sinful), to communication of feelings as if it is a sinful thing.

    Let’s assume it is as universal as Scott makes it out to be….”the minor mode, lack of harmonic resolution, and wide intervalic leaps contributing to a sense of ambiguity and tension” as an example. Who cares? Is this sinful? You can debate ad nauseam about whether this feeling is conducive to the lyrics, but it doesn’t make it wrong. At worst, it is bad judgment on the part of the musician. Yet we draw lines and throw sin bombs across the fence as if it is obvious that certain music is sinful.

  3. Rick, even if it’s not sinful, it may still communicate badly. It can even communicate wrongly, as was already pointed out in previous comments. If the music creates ‘wrong affections’ or inappropriate feelings, then that can potentially be harmful. Especially in worship (but also outside the congregational setting), we need to make sure we speak and sing in a way that reinforces and supports the meaning of the lyrics. Not doing so can lead to a wrong understanding of biblical truths, such as the ‘Jesus my lover’ tendency in much of CCM. The other point is striving for excellence in art used for Christian purposes. I think we should be a factor to be reckoned with in our culture, and lead by example by creating and using good art. Art can be trivial or it can represent God’s attributes in its features. As such, it can be true (representative of life’s realities) or kitsch, when beauty is dumbed down and ignores reality. It can also be imbalanced. We need to re-learn how music represents truth – hence the argument of appropriateness. If it’s not sin that does not mean it’s not an important topic to discuss.

  4. It is just off the topic of where this started when Scott said music apart from lyrics can be sinful. The communication you are talking about has more to do with how the music interacts with the lyrics and musician. Those are two different topics, yet the two seem to get intertwined as if they are the same thing.

  5. Scott,

    I know you believe your position is from scripture alone, however Heb 18:28-29 is not in the Bible :-P

  6. I’ve been following this conversation from the beginning, but it’s just getting more and more complicated. I do not have extensive musical training, (as much as I love music) and as a happy SAHM, am unlikely to have any in the future. If one day, I am so moved by the Goodness, Patience, anything of God and pen some words, a tune, to His glory but it has the wrong chord progression, it is sinful? What hope do I have? I rely on using the mind He’s given me along with orthodoxy/orthopraxy explicit in scripture to evaluate truth in lyrics, combined with my preferences for music in what I listen to. I find myself discouraged by Scott’s position. How can any of us who do not have the training and knowledge he has hope to be confident in our choices of music.

  7. Dear Janelle,

    Let not your heart be troubled. No one in this discussion has the right or the Biblical evidence to label any music as morally evil.

  8. Janelle, I totally agree with you. I said something very similar early on in one of the other threads about how as a teen I had thoughts exactly like you expressed. I was petrified that I might hear a wrong tune and sin, yet I didn’t know how to identify a wrong tune. It seemed like it changed depending on the person you were talking to. In my opinion, this is dangerous teaching that can seriously confuse young Christians. It teaches them that they have to look outside of Scripture to determine what is right and wrong. So I wholeheartedly agree with you that it is quite discouraging to hold to this position and try to figure out what music is sinful and what music isn’t! To steal one of my dad’s favorite phrases, it is like trying to nail jello to a tree…..frustrating.

  9. Maybe this discussion is fine if it’s kept purely on a theological level, but as I home school my 4 children, I’m burdened with the responsibility of teaching, training, and discipleing them to the glory of God. I teach them in all things to honor and obey God out of love for Him! When I think of this issue, I’m at a loss of how I could ever address this without encouraging them to be legalistic – feeding their flesh! In part that may be because of the need for their understanding to be more simplistic, but if I cannot defend it in my own mind, how can I to them? Do we not have freedom in Christ? Yes I’m well aware of how some use that to justify anything/everything, but would this not be a appropriate issue to apply it to? In reading the book of Galatians…just wow…read it! Galatians 5 especially stood out to me.

    5 For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.
    13 For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. 14 For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 15 But if you bite and devour one another, watch out that you are not consumed by one another.

    Can I just let this issue go? Can I just listen to the Spirit, and keep obeying what my Lord has explicitly ask of me, which is by far enough to keep my on my knees depending on Him for the rest of my life? If I am off somewhere, please correct me! I’m no scholar…I just love Jesus, want to honor Him in truth, extend grace, and take the responsibilities He’s given me seriously!

  10. Janelle,

    I’m going to believe and hope that you do want to know and want to do what God wants. This is a debate between Scott and Shai Linne, so Scott is getting technical. If he doesn’t get technical, his critics will say that he doesn’t know what he’s talking about — please give evidence. When he does get technical, people say he’s over everyone’s head and there is no way that God could expect someone to do something that he couldn’t hope to understand. Scott has said that someone doesn’t need the technical aspects to make these judgments. In other words, someone can just hear this. Scott is far more technically proficient than I am and I don’t understand a big percentage of his musical jargon, but I can make the judgments the same as he does, because you don’t have to know music to make the judgment. You don’t. These decisions are actually not too difficult to make, if you care.

    You’ve missed the point if you think it requires musical training or professional abilities to decide. Scott isn’t saying that. Music has natural meaning. You can listen to a particular example and know that has qualities that are not fitting of worship of God or that would be plainly acceptable to Him.

  11. Point taken Allen…maybe this debate then is not for the simple, like me, but for professionals in the ministry. :) However, where does that leave me if I think, for example, heavy Christian metal (I don’t really know what that is, but imagine I’d have no use for it) has an offensive “natural meaning” or sound, but love everything from Shai Linne’s music to George Beverley Shea, and someone else hears offensive “natural meaning” in anything other than a hymn? Is one of us right and one of us wrong? And if so, how do you know?

  12. Dear Janelle,

    If you have a good conscience before God regarding the music you listen to, you’re fine.
    I think you’ve probably noted a few things as you’ve read through this debate.
    –The experts cannot provide simple answers for non-experts.Someone once said that “simplicity is truth’s most becoming garb”. If that’s true then most of their arguments are over dressed.
    –Weak arguments are not strengthened by adding more words. The octopus when scared will attempt to hide itself in a cloud of ink.


    Here is a GREAT resource. Theses messages stick to the Bible and the speaker, Tim, does not get technical. I don-t understand Scott’s jargon either, but coupled from listening to these messages can understand more of what he is getting at. I strongly recommend this resource tooanyone interested. Great messages and the speakers includes a binder for with notes and quotes for you. I think its well worth the $20.

  14. Thank you drfiddledd, I do believe you’re right…and since He is my Judge, I will continue to rely on His wisdom, and not man’s.

  15. God bless you, Janelle! Let the Word of God and not the words of men (or the words of men about the Word of God) be your guide

  16. There was no shortage of good conscience about the golden calves at Bethel and Dan, and I don’t seem to remember a lot of strenuous objection to the high places among the average Israelites either. So those were probably fine. And don’t let stop signs keep you from making good time on your trips either! That’s just the opinions of men about where you ought to slow your car down: let your conscience be your guide about such matters.

  17. “Let . . . not the words of men (or the words of men about the Word of God) be your guide.”

    In other words, don’t listen to even drfiddledd. You are on an island.

  18. Wow, Janelle. I’m so sorry. Do you really not have anyone in your life that you rely on, consult, depend on, or trust when you make life decisions for your family and children? Are you not part of a local church wherein brothers and sisters in Christ work together to make decisions pleasing to the Lord?

    God did not intend for us to go at it alone. He did not intend for us to make decisions for ourselves or our families by ourselves. He gave us the church–and by church I don’t only mean your local church or churches today–we have the great benefit of the community of faith over hundreds of years to consult.

    Additionally, I would suspect you make decisions for your children very similar to what Dr. Aniol prescribes regularly with little thought.

    How do you determine, for example, what kids you will let your children hang around with? How can you tell if someone is a bad influence on your children.

    If you can do that, you can discern what music is good for your children.

  19. Is there a specific law about idols? Yes.
    Is there a specific law about high places? Yes.
    Is there a specific law about stop signs? Yes.
    Is there a specific law about music? No.

  20. drf, is there a specific rule about food in the NT? No.
    Yet, we can find substantial agreement as to what dishes are acceptable and which ones are not in Western culture. We have culinary shows where a trophy is handed out for the best tasting meal. If we go to a restaurant and the veggies are overcooked (a judgement) or too salty (a judgement) or too cold etc., we will complain to the waiter. With what right? If this is all relative, then how in the world is the chef supposed to guess what a client may prefer? The Bible says nothing about good taste in a food context, yet, rules exist in this world on that matter. Now, there are many parallels between food and music:
    # Food taste is acquired, and will be somewhat different between cultures and individuals.
    # Food taste (preference) can be cultivated. This is why we can have a star rating and incognito food tasters who award restaurants stars.
    # We all know junk food is qualitatively inferior to haute cuisine.
    # We are not meant to combine certain foods into one dish (dump the pudding into the meat balls), yet some rules can be broken without creating a dish that tastes horrible (e.g., adding some cranberry sauce to turkey is ok).
    # There is even scientific (objective) information on what food should be like, how to preserve its nutritional value, and what foods to eat to stay healthy.

    Eating the wrong foods constantly will lead to malnutrition and will make one sick. Does God want that to happen? No. Why did He not clearly tell us in the Bible what we need to eat and how to prepare food, then? Isn’t that a really important matter? Should Christians stop worrying about eating right because the Bible is silent on the matter (ok, apart from ‘too much honey’)? What does your conscience tell you about food?

  21. Am happy to continue this conversation provided we can all continue to speak to each other in love. ;) I did not intend these posts to be about me, but let me give you some background…BTW, I am not alone! I do have people in my life to rely on for counsel, first, my husband, who regards this discussion with mild interest, but doesn’t believe anyone will change anyone’s mind. :) He came from an unchurched home and was converted at 20, and so is free from the religiosity that some of the rest of us have a hard time getting away from (speaking about myself as well). I, as a PK, came from a spiritually conservative and culturally conservative background. My grandfather was a very English music/choir/voice teacher at a very conservative bible college. (I assume his views/preferences would be similar to Scott’s). I have such respect and love for him, that maybe part of my questioning here reflects my desire to understand his culture, generation, views etc. Josh, you brought up a great point…I do do that…instinctively know some things…reminds me of this post I cam across that has been resonating in my head and heart. Read it for yourself.

    I think that this is my answer to this issue. To those of you who have far more knowledge/training than I, maybe this seems simplistic – not really answering a question, an easy out. But for me it is where I have to keep my focus. So easy for my flesh to hijack an issue like this for me. I will rely on my conscience before God, but only because I am continually seeking Him, and His truth – failing, and imperfectly so much of the time, but knowing He will be faithful to correct me, discipline me, guide me and make Himself known to me. So with that, I pray God blesses you all in your pursuit for His truth. Thank-you for this wonderful discussion, and that where we disagree on some things, we can remember the essentials that we do agree on. Go back and read Scott and Shai’s introduction. It’s encouraging to me.

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