By Dr. Charlie W. Starr
There’s a uniqueness to music that makes it hard to pin down. Music expresses, but it doesn’t always express ideas. We listen to music with lyrics differently than purely instrumental music. Where most other art enters our minds through the eyes, music enters through the ears. It’s unlike any other art form. How do we listen to it well?
The Sound of Silence
I’d start with a caution: perhaps we listen too much. In C. S. Lewis’s Screwtape Letters, the demon Screwtape explains that Heaven is hateful to the demonic ear as a place of either silence or music. Hell, he says, is filled with wonderful noise. A hundred years ago, people didn’t have radios and record players (or CDs and MP3 players). For most of human history, we’ve had long moments of silence available to us throughout any given day. In an electronic age, we can fill our ears with sounds on a constant basis, and even if we only listen to the purist, most noble, most Christian music, it is possible that we may be listening too often. Even the best music can merely be noise when we use it to fill the silence where God might be trying to speak to us. Sometimes the best thing we can do with music is turn it off.
For months now I’ve been talking about the importance of imaginative approaches to art, of experiencing the text, of avoiding the leap to analysis that reduces art to philosophical abstractions and life application statements. I would say the same thing here but not for long. We should definitely take music in, let it touch our imaginations, let it have an emotional effect on our hearts. We should delight in it, sing along with it, and even dance to it. But more than most of the other art forms, music has an ability to speak so directly to that “right brained” side of our thinking that our analytical side can be circumvented and ignored.
How long do you go before you finally pay attention to the lyrics of a song you’ve been listening to and try to figure out what they mean? Have you noticed that when you’re feeling depressed, you choose to listen to a playlist of songs that reinforce your depression rather than move you out of it? That’s
why we must move beyond experiential approaches to music (active or passive) and spend time analyzing what we hear.
How to Listen
Think about how music affects you personally—your thoughts, feelings, and attitudes. We ought to become aware of our own responses to music. This includes being aware of the memories and personal experiences we associate with various songs.
Next, consider these suggestions a music teacher taught me about how to get the most out of music:
• Music doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It’s linked to the culture and time in which it was created. So learn something about that culture and historical moment.
• There is a language to music. Notes become motifs, which become phrases, which become forms and compositions. Take music lessons and learn the vocabulary of the songs you’re listening to.
• Appreciate music as literature. Music has its counterparts to literary techniques: conflict, climax, and development. Read music like you read a story.
• Appreciate music as biography. Bach began his works with a phrase in Latin that means, “To God alone be the glory.” When you learn about a composer or musician, you learn something about his music.
• View music as a companion to other arts. This is easier to do with film (which usually includes music). But you can, for example, listen to Chopin while looking at impressionist painters or to Bach while looking at Baroque architecture. Even contemporary pop music often has connections to other art forms.
I’d say it’s also appropriate to analyze music by its elements (as I suggested last month with film). Pay attention to rhythm, melody, texture (how the sound of a song is layered, especially in its use of harmony), timbre (the tonal quality of the sound—think about the difference between a brass instrument and a woodwind), form (as in the second point above), and dynamics.
Of all art forms, music may be the easiest to experience with all our heart but the most difficult to experience with all our mind. Listening with our whole self is the best way to experience music.
Dr. Charlie W. Starr teaches English, humanities, and film at Kentucky Christian University in Grayson, Kentucky.