“Music is not for the ears!”

Many years ago, I had a good friend whose focus and discipline as a musician used to act as a regular rebuke to me. Not her words – just how she lived her life as a musician. She possessed a basic certainty of drive and overall direction as an undergraduate music student that I knew that I did not possess – and she played two instruments!

On the face of it, you might never have known that I was uncertain of my place in music. But those closest to me knew that I had too many balls in the air and that I needed to be more focussed. But I could not for the life of me figure out which way to go. So I kept all my balls in the air as best I could and supported my friends who were more secure in their musical identity. And this lady was one of those. Her interest was – and remains – in early music, particularly baroque music – something that interested me vaguely, but not seriously.

I was, however, very serious about my own Christian faith, and I did not hide this from her (or anyone else). This did not always make our relationship as friends an easy one, as her secular lifestyle at that time meant that we could not possibly see eye to eye on certain things, and at times I am sure that in my zeal to stand up for biblical morality I did manage to offend her (something that I factor in these days when I talk about faith and morality to people who don’t share my Christian presupposition – by God’s grace we learn). However, I could never shake off the nagging feeling that she was looking for something more and that was why I kept taking the risks with her that I did.

Given all of that, I will never forget the moment when – sitting in a London music venue eating hors d’oeuvres whilst waiting to play a jazz gig – she rang my mobile phone from another country and told me that she was going to be baptised.

Years passed, and I became a conducting student and developed a serious fascination and ferocious commitment to the sacred music of J.S. Bach. This has since led to an increasing interest in the multiple phenomena of the baroque musical era. I have not seen this friend of mine for many years, but when next we meet (by God’s grace) we will have much to talk about!

I’d like to share something that she herself shared, and then respond to it.

Quote of the day: “The aim of music is to glorify God and to move the affections of the listener” (Johann Mattheson, c. 18th). He also believed that music was able to cure mental and physical diseases and hated it when “merely the EARS of the poor, simple and self-righteous listeners are tickled, but their HEARTS and MINDS are not aroused in proper measure.” Hence the title of a paper I wrote many years ago…: “Music is NOT for the ears!” May we use music according to its original design and purposes!

Now, if you click on this link about Mattheson, you will see that at present he does not enjoy the kind of consistent, conspicuous respect that would have been the case in times past (even the last century). But that does not mean that he was not onto something. We know that musicologists ranging from Alfred Dürr to Susan McClary have robustly questioned the legitimacy of the position that Bach was a true confessional Christian. We also know that the weight of both historiographical, musical/musicological and theological evidence is against the skeptical position advocated by them and others. As such, we can infer that in our post-Hegelian, post-modern, Western-centric 21st-century world it is going to be extremely difficult for the position enumerated in the very first sentence of the quote above to be taken seriously by contemporary millenials who may well believe that music is bigger than us as human beings, but would utterly reject the idea that music’s chief aim is to glorify God.

Here’s where I am going: we don’t accept that something is true because someone well-known (and well-respected) says so. We don’t accept that something is not true because someone well-known (and well-respected) has or has not said it. Something is true because it is true – and vice-versa. And the only exception to that is the Son of God, who was Himself truth (John 14:6) and therefore incomparable with any other human being.

Music is becoming an increasingly important tool in modern healthcare with no religious affiliations or attachments. Growing numbers of NHS trusts in the UK are starting what are known as ‘well-being choirs.’ Music is being appropriated in all sorts of clinical care settings as part of actual therapy. The effect of singing on the emotions is being taken increasingly seriously by those who work in depression recovery in the USA and Europe.

I am both a serious musician and a theologian, and I am fully convicted that the work of Jesus encompassed healing, teaching, and preaching. Healing is not necessarily the work of doctors, nurses and their associates. It is the work of all those who show love and compassion. Those who give a smile and a hug to a lonely and hurting heart. Those who visit someone who has lost physical mobility and feels forgotten even by their biological relatives. Those who have lost hope for many reasons as the cards of life just keep on stacking against them. So that means that I cannot merely live a life of music and words. I too have to be part of the work of healing!

Musicians have a serious and profound calling to do more than merely make people feel good. Our job is to actually sing, play compose, arrange and direct ensembles in such a way that our actions of creativity make a real and tangible difference in this increasingly dissolute and broken world. Rather than pander to the whims of those who want what is quick, popular and transient (precisely because it offers  no challenge to the listener), we need to be bold innovators who are less obsessed with the notional construction of ‘being original’ and instead are committed to faithfulness in message – and a message that is worth hearing; one that offers real hope beyond that which this world can ever offer – in and of itself.

But in a typically nuanced analysis, I would like to gently disagree with the very title of this blog post. Of course I know what is meant, and I agree with the essential sentiment. But music is exactly for the ears – however, my question: do people actually still listen in order to hear (which requires the use of the ears by definition) – or do they listen with their emotions, thus taking in the sonic embodiment of music through the physical faculties of auditory perception, but never really ‘hearing’ what they are listening to?

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2 comments on ““Music is not for the ears!”

  1. Katharine van der Beek says:

    Dear Theomusicologist, I am complimented that you wrote a blog on the subject of my life’s message! (Or one of them!!) I would be happy to see you again one day, or even to skype. I would like to disagree in a friendly way, on your closing statements. Saying “music is for the ears” is like saying f”ood is for the mouth”. II would argue that rather it is simply the sensory organ that intercepts or perceives the sound or food, but is not the eventual intended recipient. It simply checks that it is good before it enters the body. I don’t think we disagree about the purposes of music, so maybe this is simply a pedantic and/ or semantic debate! I would be happy to continue further if you wish! Shabbat shalom from Zion, Katharine

    • theomusicologist says:

      Aha, my dear Katharine, thanks for taking the time to respond!

      This is unquestionably a ‘semantic’ debate, and to some extent it would not be helpful to debate it in writing, so if this has opened an opportunity for us to speak about these and other matters, then God is good!

      A philosopher’s approach to language is not the same as others – and so one of the things I’ll raise is the question of whether or not the comparison of ‘food – mouth’ and ‘music – ears’ is actually analogically viable… Also, the idea was not so much to say that ‘music is definitely for the ears’ – but more to ask how we would think about the reality of hearing without hearing. So yes, I do appreciate your point that the sensory organ in and of itself cannot be the final destination – but if one thinks about it, that would be taken as self-evident by people who have a opposing worldview to our own – as well as those who think the same way. So what point is really being made by saying ‘music is not for the ears?’ For me, that sentence cannot stand alone – it would always need to be amplified. But others would not see it the same way, and there is room for all those perspectives and more.

      I’ll take the opportunity to add one more thing – in an world in which pseudo-amorality is increasingly championed (note: ‘pseudo’), to make the case for more than surface-level moral processing in music-making at times requires a more rigorous approach to language games – but without spiritual compromise. And I look forward to playing mental badminton with you on that subject anon.

      Happy Sabbath to you too! TM

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