How do we listen?

Last fall, I posted something from one of my readings for my Hymnology class, from a book called Praying Twice by Brian Wren that I’d highly recommend to anyone looking to more deeply understand the meaning of music in worship. This particular quote talks about how the human mind actively listens to music:

As we listen to music, our minds reach back and forth. Memory and anticipation work together. They “maintain a sort of map, partial and imperfect, of the composition passing before us.” Listening is led by anticipation, as our cerebral cortex draws on memory and searches for familiar patterns and devices. We anticipate what we already know, and in that sense “re-cognize” musical devices. As we listen to music, “we are constantly revising our opinions of what has happened in the past in the light of present events… constantly altering our expectations.” Our anticipations are not merely intellectual, but felt: an instinctive mental and motor response.

I’ve been reading another book lately called Resonant Witness, which is a collection of essays that stemmed from a summit of musicologists and theologians who got together to chat. (Oh, to be a fly on the wall…) One of the essays breaks down St. Augustine’s perspective on music, which was one of several topics on which he had definite opinions. If you don’t know who Augustine was (I didn’t really until I read this) he lived from 354-430, and he was a convert to Christianity. He was well studied in the liberal arts, as were his fellow upper-class white males, and at the time it was typical for Christian authors like Augustine to use their liberal arts training to understand, explain, and defend their Christian faith. Augustine, being a convert, was keen to use this soapbox to further understand his newly embraced faith, and to figure out the implications it had on his life, as well as to use it to more clearly understand the world around him. Augustine had committed himself to writing several treatises on various topics relating the liberal arts and faith, and though he did not finish all he had intended, we can learn from his ideas on music from the one he did complete on music.

In his treatise, Augustine affirms the art of active listening as Brian Wren has described it, but he takes it one further by addressing the question of: How should Christians listen actively to music?

From the beginning, Augustine had a love/hate relationship with music. He saw its power to so easily be abused, and was wary of its affect on him personally, knowing that if it could distract him from his faith and at times overcome him emotionally, it would surely have that power over others:

Music is undeniably beautiful– it occasions pleasure, delight, and love– but unless this delight is rightly directed, it can simply become what Augustine describes as a “carnal pleasure”, an “intimacy of the soul with the flesh” that vitiates the soul, creating in it a struggle or tension that renders it blind to the eternal music of God and impotent to order itself in accordance with it. [Resonant Witness, p34-5]

And so, with a ferocity similar to John Wesley’s many centuries later, he demanded of himself that every motion and movement of the soul was to be ordered toward God and have God as its object, which included his understanding of the wonder of music and its subsequent appropriateness in the Christian life.

To Augustine, there were two stages of listening to music. There was pleasure, and there was reason. The body took pleasure in the simple beauty of music, but unless the soul moved beyond that superficial enjoyment and judged it to be good, that pleasure, and likewise the music, was empty and unedifying.

We can think about Augustine’s stages of listening as being broken down into the following:

1) Listening for enjoyment or pleasure, not caring whether it’s “good” or not;

2) Judging whether it’s musically good, and enjoying it whether it’s spiritually good;

3) Judging whether it’s also good for the soul.

Wait a second, this is only music, you might say. We hear it when we’re walking through the supermarket, when we flip on the radio… what’s the big deal? To Augustine, it was one of the fundamental ways he understood his faith:

[Augustine’s] basic, but revolutionary, insight is that God is music: he is supreme measure, number, relation, harmony, unity, and equality. When he created matter from nothing he simultaneously gave it existence by giving it music, or form– in other words measure, number, relation, harmony, unity, equality… Thus, the whole of created reality exists because of its possession of music. It remains in existence, however, only by acknowledging its complete and absolute dependence upon its Creator, by understanding itself and all that is as existing only in relation to its Creator. [Resonant Witness, p31]

If he’s thinking about music on this level, then it’s clear that the question of how one listened to and interacted with music was one of the most important faith questions Augustine was facing, as it determined how that person interacted with God.

When we take it down from this 30,000 foot hypothetical discussion, and take a minute to listen– really listen– to what we hear on the radio and in the supermarket, we can start to see what Augustine was getting at. The music we hear on the radio has a theology, of a sort. It’s definitely not Christian, but it’s ascribing to a set of values and beliefs: primarily engaging in risky behavior such as drinking all night, doing a myriad of drugs, and having a variety of sexual encounters. If we move beyond the pop music into country, we see celebrations of revenge, glorifying and idolizing other individuals and other disengagements from reality… step into indie/rock and there’s a whole other basket of vices, including a prominent celebration of anti-theism.

Augustine calls us to listen and think:

-Do we take enjoyment in what we hear? But don’t stop there– keep questioning…

-Is it musically challenging/satisfying? But don’t stop there either…

-Can we judge our superficial enjoyment of this music to also be appropriate for our souls?

To Augustine, music is such a big deal that it requires questions to this level, because to him, music is more than a gift from God: it’s God on earth. Because he defines everything in relation to God, then our enjoyment is only meaningful if it’s enjoyment in the eternal, or in something that will direct us toward the eternal God.

In other words, it must appreciate that what gives it pleasure is indeed beautiful, ordered, harmonious, and unified, but that it is not God; it is not eternal beauty, order, harmony, or unity, simply a temporal manifestation, imitation, or image of it. It must not be loved and enjoyed for itself but toward God. [Resonant Witness, p 37]

This is what we are doing when we ask that third question and judge whether the music is good for our souls– we are determining that we love and enjoy music for what it is, not as an end in itself, but as a manifestation of the eternal beauty. Human sinfulness permits us only a limited perspective of this beauty of the universe, which is why we need to keep it in perspective, as not an end in itself.

All this is not to say we have to listen to only Christian music. I certainly don’t. My judgment has always been that I need to be able to sing along with the music with a clear conscience, and that rule in itself has ruled out most mainstream pop music, excepting some stuff like certain songs by certain artists– jazz guys like Jamie Cullum, and Michael Buble, Ben Folds, even some stuff by rock bands like Greenday, Smashmouth and Cake (obviously not everything, but they have some light, fun stuff). I get three yes’s from these songs, the same as I do from my guys Chris Tomlin, Matt Maher, and Steven Curtis Chapman.

So let’s take this down even further into practicality: what does this mean if you want to start actively listening as a Christian, or encouraging your kids or your spouse to do so? It really just comes down to being deliberate and picky about what you’re putting in your ears. All you have to do is ask yourself those questions above. Do you enjoy it? Is it good music? And is it spiritually satisfying? Or, an easier way to think of that last one is: do you find yourself drawn closer to God when you listen, or further away? The answer to that is all you need to know.