How’s This for an Argument?

There is the rather oafish claim floating about that worship is words, and that music cannot communicate without the help of words. The claim is based on the principle that worship must be understandable. Worship has to edify, and in order to edify it must be understandable.

I once read in the 39 Articles the statement that worship conducted in a language foreign to the hearers is repugnant to true religion–or something like that. And I agree. It must be understood. That limits us, sometimes, but the point is to love our brethren and seek above all things to edify them in the public assembly.

A good passage to go to in order to see the importance of understanding and edification is 1 Corinthians 14:6-12. That passage, however, turns out to be a bad one for supporting that music has to have words for it to be understood. There is an illustration of the principle that the apostle makes in that passage, and the illustration involves instrumental music exclusively. The point there is that speaking in untranslated tongues is just noise to the hearer. Music badly performed has that problem too. At least, that seems to be Paul’s perception. But his point is also that music is more than just noise, and the problem with untranslated tongues is that it cannot be but noise.

I think what people who say that music communicates nothing are saying that music communicates nothing to them (and there is some truth in that, but not enough). I think the mistake they’re making is that of supposing that the message the music communicates is always translatable in words. That it can somehow be communicated by other means. The point of any real art, however, is that it communicates something incommunicable by other means. Why do we use poetic language and not prose? The point is not a mere decoration, some sort of marketing of the message through the glamor of poetry. The point is that it will not come through complete any other way. The same is true of painting, sculpture, and of course of music.

Think of taps or reveille, talking of the trumpet. They communicate more than simply time to go to bed, and time to get up, though without words they manage at least to communicate that. And that’s the point: they clearly communicate; that’s the apostle’s point in 1 Corinthians 14:8. If these musical pieces for trumpet did not communicate in their very sound, his point would not stand.

And the illustration of taps and reveille is convenient. It might be argued by some that they don’t understand the language of music-so it does not edify. If they argued this way they would be partially right. But being partially right is also being partially wrong, remember. They would be wrong in supposing that they can’t understand. The problem is more that they won’t understand. Imagine a soldier sleeping in at reveille under the argument that he didn’t know too much about music or that nobody really explained to him the meaning of the urgent sound of the trumpet in the morning. True, this insensitivity to musical communication may limit what we do in the church. But not, it seems to me, that much.

What do you think, does the argument work?


4 thoughts on “How’s This for an Argument?

  1. Of course I have general sympathy with your point. I think disagree-ers would say that with the horn for battle there is an assigned meaning to a certain sequence of notes. You’d end up in a chickenegg discussion. I think verse 7 though supports your argument: “how will anyone know what tune is being played unless there is a distinction in the notes.” (NIV) I think this hints at more than just recognition of the tune.

    As for Daniel, I shall likely be of little help.

  2. I see what you’re saying. I don’t think it can be a chickenegg discussion though; it isn’t as if musicians first come out to announce the assigned meaning. It is precisely because it works in the opposite direction that music works, it seems to me. But if that’s the only hole to knock in it, I’m still pretty pleased. Anyway, I already used it on Sunday.

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