“The Power of Music”
Joseph Fletcher, the Scottish political activist of the eighteenth century, once said, “Let me write the songs of a nation. I care not who makes its laws." Fletcher knew music can have a greater impact on the thinking and behavior of people than the laws they live under. He saw music as a powerful tool for political and social change. And it still is.
Music can inspire revolution because of its inherent connection to our emotions. As one man said, “Music is the language of the soul.” However, music’s ability to express emotion and connect with our hearts, is also a cause for warning. First, we will speak in the realm of music in general and then specifically of music directed toward God as worship.
The Power of Music in General
Every song carries with it a worldview, a philosophy, a way of seeing the universe. That message is birthed in the creative minds and skillful hands of the musicians. It is carefully crafted in the studios of Nashville, TN or Brooklyn, NY. Then it is digitally snipped, cut and packaged into its most palatable form by producers to be devoured by you, the consumer.
Consumption of that message takes place in the most sacred human space, the heart. “Watch over your heart with all diligence," Wisdom says, "for from it flow the springs of life.” (Prov. 4:23) Wisdom warns us to be careful what we pour into that sacred wellspring. Exposure to and acceptance of the message a song is espousing will have consequences on our thinking and behavior (Mt. 15:18-20).
But lady Wisdom gives us both warning and instruction. Music should also be regarded as a gift from God. Our God is a musical, eloquent God, and has blessed many with the ability to create music. You may be able to bring blessing through the power of music to the hearts of others. Paul's words are a helpful filter not only for what we allow into our hearts but also what we are sending out from our hearts into the hearts of others: “Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, dwell on these things" (Phil. 4:8). All our creative endeavors should be under the influence of the gospel. Do not use an attractive melody as a cloak for evil (cf. Gal. 5:13; 1 Pet. 2:16).
Many forms of music have no lyrical content at all. Classical, jazz, and other forms of “music for music’s sake,” though without words, are not without power. See the difference in ideology between the two great German composers Ludwig van Beethoven and, a generation later, Richard Wagner for proof.
The Power of Music as Worship
Let’s move to the realm of music in the context of worship. God is praised with music. But what kind of music exalts the Lord of the universe? Notice the relatively few New Testament passages on song worship give little direction as to the form that music is to take. We are simply told to “sing” (Jas. 5:13) with the “fruit of [our] lips” (Heb. 13:15) “making melody with [our] heart to the Lord” (Eph. 5:19).
We are given freedom as to the form those “hymns, psalms, and spiritual songs” take as long as we “sing” them. Notice God emphasizes content not form. Our worship songs glorify God when their content is spiritual (Col. 3:16). The primary way worship music reaches us emotionally is through the message that resonates within our hearts as we sing. The form is secondary and should be in service to content. Good song writers know how to appropriately match melody and poetry.
Some contemporary trends in worship music have gotten away from this content-first, participatory approach in favor of a form-first, observation approach. The emphasis is less on instruction through content and more on producing emotion through the form of the music. Instead of thinking about the message of the song through the words, we are encouraged to feel the message through the form. In true worship, however, God wishes us to use music as a vehicle of expression that points to his glory. When the content of our worship music is given a back seat to form, the music no longer points to God but is, in a sense, pointing to itself. The music is no longer a means to an end (to exalt God and express truth) but becomes an end in itself, a subtle form of idolatry.
Because music has the potential to sound so beautiful we can become infatuated with form at the expense of content. This is no big deal with secular music but when it comes to worship music, content must precede form. In Amos’ day, Israel was “at ease in Zion” and had turned the worship of God into an exercise in self-indulgence. They were those who “sing idle songs to the sound of the harp and like David invent for themselves instruments of music” (Amos 6:5). The prophet says “Woe” to them! (6:4). They had no awareness of the meaning and instruction of the psalms of David and sang them as idly as any other common song.
The irony is that the very thing that could have brought the Israelites out of their sin and closer to God (true, spiritual worship) had been perverted as a tool to gratify their own pleasure and pushed them further away from God. The warning stands today. If we "worship in spirit and in truth" (Jn. 4:24) worship will have its intended effects: God will be glorified (Rom. 15:6), we will grow closer to him and become more like him (2 Cor. 3:18), and unbelievers will see that “God is certainly among you” (1 Cor. 14:25).