Music is More Than Background Noise, So Start Being Intentional

When I was first learning my way around the piano, sometime in high school, I was given the choice of playing Christian music or Classical music. Because Classical music was hard to understand–and even harder to play–I chose Christian, and for years the only music I played was “Christian” music. But as I began to develop as a musician I found myself yearning for more. I was torn between my pious desire to do only things labeled “Christian,” and my increasing boredom with the entire genre. Piano slowly became a duty to me as my passion for music dried up in the desert of my perceived piety.

I was torn because I didn’t understand what music was for. I thought music was on a binary between “godly” music (worshipful music which must include the word Jesus) and “worldly” music (everything else, including Classical, though instrumental could go either way depending on if there were electric guitars–no lie). Music was either a guilty pleasure or a worshipful activity, and, for me, Classical music fit into neither of those. But as with all immature people of faith, my ignorance stifled my understanding of how to live. Since I couldn’t understand how God wanted me to handle music I cut off everything that wasn’t obviously OK. I lacked wisdom, discernment, and therefore a depth of soul which only comes from the experiences of deep truths.

I’m not saying anything new here. You can apply this principle of ignorance and immaturity to any other area of life. The Christian life is very difficult to navigate, especially in our modern culture of increasingly blurred lines. we put up barriers for ourselves, even when we aren’t really sure they are correct, or what’s best. But we do it in faith, and God knows that and loves us for our efforts. Music is a great example because it is so central to our cultural identity, and because church people struggle with finding their personal convictions. Music is really important because we are literally shaped by it. Let’s take a look at what is shaping us.

Technology and Availability

Because of technology we listen to lots of music. Back in the day, when you just had a record player, you could only listen to music while at home, one record at a time. Now, with streaming music services like Spotify, you can listen all day, to exactly what song you want, whenever you want it. With studio-quality headphones which block out the world, you can go to concerts at any moment. People used to imagine music, to reenact it in their heads, to sing it when away from a record player, but now we can just whip out our phones and headphones (or car stereos) and play hours and hours of music, just the way we heard it the first time, every time.

What is this doing to us? I wish I could answer. But let me show you a few things it’s done to me. It has:

  1. Numbed me to emotional and existential experiences.[1]
  2. Cheapened the art of music to simply a background noise of entertainment.[2]
  3. Taught me to need to be entertained in art, not moved or instructed.[3]
  4. Reduced my yearning for deep satisfaction to merely a simple itch to be scratched by the Next button.[4]

In short, the onslaught of modern music consumption was reducing me and my existential footprint, not building it up.

So for the past few years I have been learning how to use music to make my life better. God gave us music to enrich our souls and lift our spirits, but when I look around, the only music I see in Evangelicalism is either shallow, repetitive ditties about Jesus and how much He loves me, or, more “secular” music which merely functions as a background track to our personal films in which we are the star character.[5] If this is how you use music–which is to say, if you can’t articulate the reasons for how, why, and when, you listen, you’re probably just another consumer, skimming along the surface of the art-form (and thus the depths of the human experience available to you).

Join me in becoming more intentional with listening. If you find yourself unable to answer these questions about music, stay tuned, it’s in the dock for future posts. Until then, join me as I listen to J. S. Bach’s wonderful Cello Suite No. 1 in G Major (Download .mp3 free here). It’s very approachable and very moving. It’s simply a cello, so it’s a good place to start training your senses.

If you are interested, as I am, in learning more about Bach, the BBC have posted some nice free resources that will serve as a good entry point. There is an entire series called “Discovering Bach” under the larger series “Discovering Great Composers”. If you want to branch our from Bach, start with the series “The Story of Music in Fifty Pieces” which will help you get invested into the pieces, their composers, their history, culture, and backgrounds. Or, you can browse the archives of composers they’ve covered from A to Z.

  1. To experience art, we have to bring to it a certain emotional complexity, depth, and intelligence. Emotional intelligence is just like intellectual intelligence. If you eat junk food all day, you’ll become numb to the subtle flavors which are at the height of mankind’s experience. The taste-buds analogy is a good one–overstimulated taste-buds recoil at subtle flavors while a refined sense of taste allows a person to identify dozens of flavors at once.  ↩

  2. When I save my music listening for those rare moments of my day, each listen is intentional and moving. When I’m there, “junk food” music bores me to death, and I finally am able to discern between what is making me a more beautiful human and what is merely filling the void in my brain as time progresses.  ↩

  3. The modern music listener listens to fill a void while music exists in order to create one. Music allows us a moment to step away from ourselves and into a world of raw emotive and sensual power.  ↩

  4. The Fall created a world of deep, dark, raw angst. Those who are most alive see and feel that more than others who don’t so much yearn as want. When you are constantly distracted by music–if music is simply a tool for distraction to you–you may be curbing your angst on cheap fixes. God means for you to feel deep remorse in this life, a deep dissatisfaction and yearning for perfection. Don’t preach to yourself to be content; instead, set up moments of heightened experiences where you let go of your self-protective layers and admit that you are broken, that life hurts, and that you need Jesus and His Kingdom to come.  ↩

  5. There is a third, more correct road, which says that music is for you and about you, to help you get through life, whether it’s “Christian” or “secular”. That’s true, but it leaves God and His intentions out. He gave us music as a wonderful gift. It’s more than a guilty pleasure.  ↩