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Reading recommendations on musical meaning

I received some good feeback from my post last week briefly explaining musical meaning. Several were on Twitter:

One question I received on Twitter was whether I would provide some reading recommendations on the topic of musical meaning:

Here are some sources if you are interested in pursuing this topic.

Of course, my two books both deal with the subject extensively:

Appendix C in John Makujina’s book does an excellent job dealing with it as well.

For musicologists’ and philosophers’ perspectives, I recommend the following books:

  • What to Listen for in Music by Aaron Copland
  • The Unanswered Question by Leonard Bernstein (originally a Harvard lecture; watch here)
  • Musical Meaning and Expression by Stephen Davies
  • Emotion and Meaning in Music by Leonard Meyer
  • Feeling and Form by Susan Langer
  • Introduction to a Philosophy of Music by Peter Kivy

Finally, I’ve dealt with the subject from various angles in some articles:

  • I deal with the issue in my series on Christian rap and in my debate with Shai Linne.
  • I presented this paper at BJU Seminary for several years.
  • In this article, “Musical Relativism in Pelagian,” I link to the lecture series given by Makujina at DBTS and then give an argument myself (which may be somewhat of a repeat of the argument in the Christian rap series). I’d recommend Makujina’s lecture series as well, of course.
  • Speaking of Makujina, he presented this paper at a regional ETS that deals with the issue from a similar perspective.
  • I presented this paper (audio) at the Preserving the Truth Conference a few years back, in which I deal with the issue tangentially.
  • This paper (audio) on form in hymnody deals with the issue of meaning in music.
  • I deal with the issue from a multiculturalism perspective in this article. That whole series is worth reading in this regard.

What else would you recommend? I’ll update the post with good suggestions.

Scott Aniol

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.

4 Responses to Reading recommendations on musical meaning

  1. Scott,
    Thanks for the book list! I’ve read parts of the Bernstein and Copeland before. Good stuff. The rest of those will find their way into my amazon shopping cart pretty soon.
    I’ve got a couple of tangent topics that would make for interesting articles if you’re looking to write more… :)

    1. Approaches to musical meaning: Do you start with philosophy and musicology to argue that music has meaning and then use scripture to determine how it is used? Or do you use scripture to argue both of those points? If so, then what is the use of ministers reading Kant and Schopenhauer?
    Surely each of these approaches has its pros and cons and these approaches aren’t mutually exclusive. How would you recommend building a foundation of knowledge on this topic?

    2. If music has meaning apart from lyrics, then how can churches better utilize absolute music into their services?
    As an absolute musician (my own term) what can I do to convince the clergy and congregation that a Bach concerto with no words can be for God’s glory?


  2. Hey, Daniel!

    I think the Bible implies that music apart from lyrics communicates, but the Bible is not a music textbook, so it does not prove that or explain how it works, certainly.

    So as with any other ethical matter not explicitly addressed in Scripture, I begin with seeking to understand the matter–in this case, music–philosophically and scientifically. Then I seek the Scriptures to determine what principles apply to that matter. In the case of music, I would say that anything in Scripture that addresses our communication applies to musical choices.

    As for reading the philosophers, I think there is value in that in understanding the development of thought in the matter, although I’m not sure it’s absolutely necessary to understand how music works or what scriptural principles apply.

    As for absolute music in worship. In the first place, I understand a pastor’s objection to music without lyrics. In today’s entertainment culture, it’s easy to slip into spectator mode when there’s no clearly “sacred” content to connect my thoughts to.

    However, since music by itself can express and teach the affections, I do believe that music by itself–even without a text–can have a place in the context of worship. I would say that a pastor (and the congregation) simple needs teaching to help them see that, and as a stepping stone, I might give them a passage of Scripture on which to meditate that complements the sentiments expressed in the absolute music to help them begin to recognize the value of music by itself.

    I hope that helps!

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