Instrumental Music vs. Vocal Music

As I sat and listened to Gustavo Dudamel conduct the renowned Los Angeles Philharmonic in the beautiful Walt Disney Concert Hall, I couldn’t help but look around at the audience. There were a few young adults scattered around but no teenagers and no children. Why is it that attending symphony performances has become an “elderly” thing to do? I understand that these kinds of performances are expensive, but they usually offer student discounts, group rates, and other special offers – all you have to do is plan ahead. Why is it that our generation can pack out the Staples Center for a Taylor Swift concert but can’t manage the time to experience a distinguished conductor with arguably the best orchestra in the country?

Instrumental music used to be all that people listened to, young people included. The music that young people love today and listen to on repeat usually has lyrics attached to it. These lyrics tell a story about some aspect of life, most often romantic love, and they make it clear what the music is about. The main focus is on the lyrics; people listen to it so they can sing along. Obviously, you can’t sing along to instrumental music, and because of that, people often find it boring. However, if they really took the time to listen to it, they might find it more interesting than vocal music. Instrumental music requires us to imagine our own story for the song. The music gives us themes and emotions, but we have to fill in the rest. Sometimes, there is no story, but only a range of emotions the composer wants you to feel. You have to think and focus on the music that you’re listening to; you can’t just follow along with lyrics that you can sing without thinking about. Listening to instrumental music requires more effort, but it has a rewarding payoff that many people miss. Not only do doctors use it to help improve both physical and mental health, but it can also alleviate stress and anxiety. Maybe we wouldn’t be such a busy and stressed society if we listened to instrumental music more.

Everyone knows the names of Bach and Mozart and could probably recognize Beethoven’s famous fifth symphony, but who are the modern-day composers? The ones that compose film scores – Hans Zimmer, Michael Giacchino, John Williams, Howard Shore, to name a few. Most people who do listen to instrumental music today listen to soundtracks. While these compositions are beautiful and creative, they are more similar to popular lyrical songs than other instrumental music. There is already an image and a story attached to these compositions – the one from the movie or television show. They don’t require any new imaginations, but rely on your knowledge of the film.

There’s something about allowing our mind to connect the dots in the music that we don’t want to do. We don’t want to imagine our own images and story for the music that is playing; we want it to be told to us. I’m not saying that there’s anything wrong with lyrical music or film scores; I definitely listen to them more than classical music. But I am saying that there’s a lack of a desire to listen to instrumental music. In this world where we idolize those who can sing, we don’t have enough respect for those who create, conduct, or perform purely instrumental music. Either people weren’t raised on it or they say it bores them and puts them to sleep. But instrumental music, if you’re really listening to it, makes you think and can expand your mind. It forces you to listen to it over and over again so that you can hear each theme and every new emotion and form a complete story or image of your own to match the music. It can calm your nerves and dissipate your stress.

You don’t have to give up vocal music to appreciate instrumental music. But the next time you’re sitting in traffic or needing to unwind a little, try listening to instrumental music. Instead of lulling you to sleep, it could help you focus better than vocal music does, if you let it. If you have a favorite film composer, listen to his music for a film that you haven’t seen and see if you appreciate it as much. I love popular vocal music as well as the next person, but I’ve made a conscious effort to listen to more instrumental music, and my appreciation for it has grown. Not only that, but I’ve found myself less stressed about life in general. My generation assumes that they can’t like instrumental music because it’s not fun or popular, but they are also always busy, expecting every new technology to make their lives easier when it only makes it more stress-filled. If they put the effort in to understand instrumental music, they would discover just the opposite of their expectations and might even be able to relax. Then maybe one day we could sell out a concert hall for a symphony performance and have it filled with people a variety of ages.

Soundtracks and Hunger Strikes: Consumer Media and the Discipline of Self Awareness

“Americans no longer talk to each other, they entertain each other. They do not exchange ideas, they exchange images. They do not argue with propositions; they argue with good looks, celebrities and commercials.”
― Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death

To say we live in a fast paced world is an understatement. The Pony Express shut down only 150 years ago and the technology that erases time and space in communication and media is breathtaking. The tapping telegraph wire has given way to instant messaging and social networks crammed with news about celebrities, i phones, hit TV shows, and blockbusters making up the ubiquitous small talk of Diaspora communities from Nairobi to New Hampshire. The world has become a marketplace and we, the inhabitants, have all become potential buyers. The large globe is now small enough to be accessed in a moment and consumed for a lifetime. Because of these rapid changes I’ve been given the unflattering title of “consumer” whether I like it or not and I’ve often wondered how I function in this cause and effect world of consumption. How self aware am I of who I am and what I view or listen to? Do I passively change with the world?

It always seemed naïve to say that chronic consumption of media doesn’t have repercussions like habitual eating, drinking, or smoking. It reacts in other areas besides the core organs but I have seen grown men punch each other in the face after watching Green Street Hooligans, and I’ve witnessed shy people talk to random strangers because the song “Small Town Girl” by Journey makes them feel ‘spontaneous’ and ‘romantic.’ If these emotions come from one movie or one song then how do they affect us in a world of constant access to movies and music?

Movies and TV shows, in some sense, are combinations of sounds and images tailor made to stir up a feeling or state of mind. For instance if we want to feel academic we might watch Dead Poets Society. That movie inspires academic and bohemian feelings—reading Thoreau in the woods or standing on desks while ripping pages out of textbook. These are potent images that make up one of many stories; boxed emotions and feelings at our disposal. When I sit in front of the red Netflix screen it’s a game of ‘pick a story’ as I scan movies like the 89-cent menu at Taco Bell. For better or worse our story telling has become as cheap and easy as a crunch wrap. And if it doesn’t satisfy us we turn to something else—something new.

The age of the iPod has revolutionized the world of music. Henry Ford crowded Times Square with Model Ts and Steve Jobs covered the world with white headphones. People listen to music while they run, work, and drive and look for particular songs to fit their context, giving us the ability to make soundtracks for our lives. We relate to soundtracks and characters in stories because both have been inspired by real life, but the age of entertainment technology has made the made the influence a two way road. Film and soundtracks invite our worldviews to be compartmentalized into movie-like scenes. Since the advent of eighties workout montages we can tend to think of long stretches of time cut it into images and sped up to music. Being someone who watches a lot of movies I often find my first reaction is to feeling cheated when real life is uninterested in fulfilling my expectations quickly. I have to remind myself that I don’t walk on a movie reel like a treadmill, I walk the earth and it turns much slower.

I also have to be careful to differentiate between the image and truth. I might be inspired when I watch a movie like Ghandi to fight for freedom through extreme actions (like a hunger strike protest), but in the film’s rhetoric I can get lost in presenting the show of a hunger strike instead of the conviction and deliberation it takes to lead one. My inspiration from a good character is actually good and might lead me to action, but to copy their style and creed can be as empty as buying a certain brand of t-shirt—it benefits my image and deprives my character.

We discredit and underestimate our media’s potential for good or bad if we consume passively. In the fast world of youth worship the consumer feels old and slow. The preacher in Ecclesiastes says “All things are wearisome; man is not able to tell it. The eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor is the ear filled with hearing.” Consumers can easily be caught in a never ending cycle of cause and effect—chasing after the wind. Dry leaves and tumbleweeds are the fastest movers in the world of reaction, but both are dead.

It’s a lot easier in some respects to act like a dead man, but I have this chronic urge to want to be alive. When I think of myself as a food consumer I think of filling my stomach, but when I think of a food connoisseur I don’t often picture someone in the drive through line or palming their mouths with theatre popcorn—not to say that they never do, it’s just hard to picture. A connoisseur loves the aesthetic power of food just as a nutritionist is aware of its potential for harm or good. Both will eat deliberately because of knowledge and respect acquired for something as trifling as salad or steak, and if tri tip and cucumbers can inspire disciplined appreciation, then how much more songs and stories? This kind of awareness requires focus and deliberation. If our overload of film and music access turns to searching out the infinite design of God in one good story or track then we might find consuming the world doesn’t make as much sense as being fascinated by it.

Additional Thoughts: Giving Grace to “Crossover” Artists

Last week I penned an article for Biola’s new Center for Christianity, Culture & the Arts. You can read the article here, but I’d like to expand on my conclusion. Here’s how I ended the article (yes, spoiler alert):

Here’s the principle we all ought to keep in mind: grace should govern our every move. We may disagree with certain decisions that No Malice, Brian ‘Head’ Welch, P.O.D., Lecrae, or whoever may make, and we should seek to encourage the Christian scene to carefully consider its actions, but we have an obligation to extend grace, especially to those who are seeking to glorify the Lord. Correct gently, remember that all truth is God’s truth, and pray that these brothers will only get better as years go on.

I stand by the principle, but I was afraid of just one question. A friend of mine asked me the one thing that I knew I hadn’t really touched on: “How do you define grace?”

The question is deeper than the article could hope to cover, and I won’t come close to exhaustively answering it here. I could examine grace in terms of salvation, in terms of interpersonal relationships, in terms of sin, or any number of other options. The core of the question, though, is more pointed. How do we give grace to artists that we don’t really know? What does it actually mean to extend grace to a celebrity? Here’s how I answered the question to my friend:

Let’s remember that some language won’t be viewed the same by all listeners. [No Malice] is a guy whose album is absolutely steeped in redemption language. He has a straight-up altar call at the end of the album (“If you want to follow Jesus, pray this prayer with me”). It’s absurdly Christian. If any other artist did this album, we’d be fighting the cheese, occasionally. But instead, we’re fighting four to five swear words.

The point I’d like to drive home is just that we should carefully look at an entire work, rather than a few missteps; we shouldn’t lose the forest for the trees, as the old saying goes. Most of us (hopefully) already practice this when we interact with fellow believers: you see their sin, but you stay friends with them.Mostly, it is best to look to what is good in someone when you can. Correction is important, of course, but easiest and most effective when enacted or encouraged in those we know very well. If you don’t know someone’s story well, it is much more difficult to speak to their personal lives.

So when a public artist makes a decision that doesn’t make much sense to you, or possibly seems wrong, stop and pray. Consider if you have all of the facts. Was their decision absolutely sinful? Or did it just rub you the wrong way? Did it fly in the face of God or in the face of man? Do you know what position that artist was in when the song was recorded?”

Public figures, whether they are rappers or bloggers, politicians or pastors, should be careful with their words. We all should be, but public figures especially so. Our responsibility as listeners is to seek the best–all truth is God’s truth, after all–even as we discern good from evil. While we need not condone clear and obvious sin, we would be wise to remember that those who create art, write words, or otherwise live publicly are, in fact, not perfect.

Grooveshark, Free Music, and the Future of the Music Industry

That title may be a bit much. More specifically, the title may sound like it is speaking to a lot of things, but I think it may actually all be one thing. With the recent lawsuits against Grooveshark by all of the major music labels, the folks over at Gizmodo sat down with the CEO of the little company, and came up with Six Reasons Why Recorded Music Should Be Free. And, actually, I think they may be right. Continue reading Grooveshark, Free Music, and the Future of the Music Industry

Giving Music Away

Over at his personal blog, music artist Derek Webb has a  rather lengthy post detailing why he believes that giving away music for free is actually a good thing for the artist. Besides giving some insight concerning streaming services like Spotify or even purchasing albums from services like iTunes or Amazon, Webb spends his words on arguing for a relationship between himself and his fans. While his argument focuses throughout the post on the idea that giving away an album he would make relatively little from by selling it on iTunes will net him a gain through concert tickets, t-shirts, or even other albums from a merch table, Webb does conclude by suggesting that giving away albums for free actually increases the value of music, rather than decreasing it. Continue reading Giving Music Away

“Christian” Hip-Hop: What Does That Even Mean?

Last week, we talked a bit about the importance of Christian hip-hop/rap as a genre, and then provided numerous examples of theologically-influenced lyrics from within the genre. Hopefully you’ve taken a few minutes to check some of those artists out. What follows today is a discussion of a debate that has long existed within the genre, but has recently taken a front seat. Continue reading “Christian” Hip-Hop: What Does That Even Mean?

Whitewashing Cultural Sepulchers

She’s only three, but our differing taste in music is already a source of conflict. When I turn on Johnny Cash or Regina Spektor, she is adamant: “No.  Songs ’bout Jesus.”  In other words, the local contemporary Christian music station.

At first this seemed OK.   Like many parents, I’m concerned about the kind of art my daughter surrounds herself with.  Popular Christian music doesn’t have any obviously objectionable lyrics, so it must be good for her, right?

Not necessarily.  While the lyrics she enjoys are fine, the music itself often is not.  If Plato and Aristotle were correct, listeners should pay as much attention to the sound of a song as to its lyrics.  Yet, in the popular music world, few do that – and it’s probable that few ever have.  Christians have been right to spurn songs that verbally glorify immorality, but unfortunately they have sometimes imported and whitewashed musical styles that may themselves teach bad lessons.  As Carson Holloway wrote recently:

“…music moves the passions, and… this power, exerted repeatedly over time on people who are immature and impressionable, can produce a certain disposition under which it will be either easier or more difficult for reason to see, and for the will to choose, what is right.”

Thanks to the iPod,  music has become one of the most casually consumed art forms.  The entertainment industry has so taken over popular music that much of it is hardly even considered art anymore – and thus the most popular works are seldom examined seriously.  We are so immersed in music that we hardly know how to hear it anymore, and few consider the consequences of blindly opening oneself up to a medium with such tremendous power to sway the emotions.

This wasn’t always so:

“[Plato and Aristotle]…claimed that people generally and the young especially are influenced most powerfully not by the words of a song but by the music itself-the rhythm, harmony and tune. For these ancients, the music itself, not the lyric, causes the stirrings of passion in the soul that show themselves in the movements of the body. Such experiences, repeated often during one’s formative years, leave a lasting mark. And the immoderation such music fosters, Plato and Aristotle remind us, can be harmful, whether or not the words of the songs are objectionable.”

While Plato specified which musical modes were good and which were bad, most find it difficult to be so specific; so difficult, in fact, that it’s doubtful whether such specificity is even useful.  Music is a terrifically complex art form.  Not only does it possess myriad nuances of every conceivable type, but each of these subtleties may have profoundly different effects on each individual listener.  This makes it all the more important that we not ignore the effects that our listening habits have on our moral sensibilities.

When Christian bands stamp family-safe lyrics on songs that sound no different from the latest secular hits, they do their art and their listeners a disservice by failing to account for the soul-shaping forces at work in the very form of their creations. Marshall McLuhan’s famous maxim, “The medium is the message,” applies to music just as much as to other forms of communication.  It’s a far from neutral medium, though fans and critics alike often treat it as one.

Far from encouraging virtue and inspiring worship, much popular Christian music unintentionally fosters the same vices as secular music.  Music ought to help one learn to cultivate higher pleasures, but instead most popular works tend to encourage listeners to stop and be entertained.  This does not mean we should reject popular music altogether; however, it does mean we should be carefully intentional about the quality of art we surround ourselves with:

“…in their attempt to take music seriously, the conservative critics of pop music do not aim high enough. They oppose music that fosters vice, but that limited aim does not do justice to the full flourishing of human nature or to the key role that the right kind of musical culture can play in fostering that flourishing. By failing to aim higher, modern conservatives ignore, and therefore do nothing to correct, the very social conditions that foster soul- and culture-deforming popular music. To understand this failing more fully, we need to develop the likely Platonic and Aristotelian diagnosis of modern popular music, modern culture and politics, and their effects on the human soul.”

While I’m not about to forbid my preschooler from listening to modern music, I do plan to teach her to treat music as an art that will help her learn to pursue higher pleasures and, ultimately, virtue.  In the mean time, we talk about the “songs ’bout Jesus” she likes so much – and the neighbor girl who frequents our home is beginning to wonder why we listen to so much Bach. ‘

“Dying to Life”: The Mountain Goats’ Mortal Climb

Some people are filled with a loud joy, as if naturally disposed to see the light in life.

For others, the road to discovering light is hard-won: they arise to a place of perspective and authenticity–a quiet joy–only through experiencing and witnessing painful descents.

John Darnielle, singer/songwriter for the folk rock band The Mountain Goats, is this second sort of person. In their latest album, The Life of the World to Come, his life’s battle is laid bare alongside his vision of its inevitable end when death arrives. Darnielle’s story is almost unbelievable: he was raised by an abusive stepfather, has been a nurse in a psychiatric ward, homeless, and friends with methamphetamine addicts.

One should not expect that his songs are a bowl of cherries, bouquet of roses, cup of tea, or any other cliché. His lyrics are sandpaper: they scrape raw, but the scars are a temporary necessity in the journey to final elegance. Certainly, this is not a ‘background-dinner-music’ album. It demands the listener’s full attention. Nor is this necessarily an album for everyone. The person capable of possessing bright joy without witnessing the dark night may not need to hear this album.

Musically, the album takes a minimalist, acoustic approach. This is not an album for someone seeking musical innovation or versatile orchestration. The album utilizes simple steel-string guitar and piano, as well as occasional percussion. Fittingly, only skeletons of heavy chord progressions accompany Darnielle’s difficult, insightful lyrics.

Every track—each one named after a different passage of Scripture—builds to form a rich religious progression, culminating at the concluding bass drum ‘heartbeat’ in the last song, “Ezekiel 7 and the Permanent Efficacy of Grace.” This album is not shy about its theme: preparation for death. Darnielle has stated that he is not a Christian, and while The Life of the World to Come surely won’t make an appearance in CCM Magazine, his words are deep spiritual meditations that synthesize personal experiences and Scripture passages.

One of the final tracks, ‘Matthew 25:21′, is a perfect example. Based on the verse, “His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master,’” the song tells the story of traveling cross-country to a beloved friend’s bedside, simply to be with them in the final surrender to cancer. “Tried to brace myself, but you can’t brace yourself when the time comes,” Darnielle recalls. And then he continues as if he is releasing his friend into the ‘joy of his master’: “We all stood there around you, happy to hear you speak,” he sings. “The last of something bright burning, still burning…You were a presence full of light upon this earth, and I am a witness to your life and to its worth.”

Likewise, the other tracks draw from actual events. “Genesis 3:23” (free to download via 4AD Records) describes the nostalgia of returning to an old home, now filled by other homeowners. Yet Darnielle adds a new dimension to this familiar experience by pairing it with the verse, “…therefore the Lord God sent him out from the garden of Eden to work the ground from which he was taken.” His lyrics bring scriptures alive by incarnating them into accessible—though often pain-filled—human experiences.

For the person who struggles to find light, The Life of the World to Come is a descent worth taking. However, the listener must trust that Darnielle will not end in the descent, though he should not be expected to completely vanquish darkness. Nevertheless, Darnielle successfully continue the battle in hope. Even with the final lines, Darnielle presses us forward. “Drive ’till the rain stops,” he cries out and then, he concludes, “Keep driving.”

The Life of the World to Come was released by 4AD Records on October 6th and is available for purchase on Amazon.