Thursday, November 15, 2007

Songs in G(RACE)minor

Sound Theology: On Meaning in Music
by Jeremy Begbie
The Christian Century, November 13, 2007

Thought-provoking cover story in the current issue of The Christian Century about the parallels between music and theology. The article is an excerpt from Begbie's recently published Resounding Truth: Christian Wisdom in the World of Music, which I may have to put on my list of things to read soon. There are many hymns with stirring words, and many tunes that move the listener, but Begbie expresses in a very compelling way the largely unconscious psychological and theological forces at work when we hear a piece of music. He lists the following three ways that music enacts some of the dynamics of the gospel: 1) It cannot be rushed, 2)It invites us to live on many levels, and 3) It makes us wait.

The article touches on many facets of music, including the use of meter and the power of silence in a piece, but I will leave those for the reader who wants to explore the article himself or herself. What stuck with me about Begbie's article was his argument that the equilibrium-tension-resolution pattern that is so common in music is also one of the "most basic psychological patterns governing our lives." He compares it to Walter Brueggemann's orientation-disorientation-reorientation scheme for interpreting the Psalms, which makes a good deal of sense. Begbie compares the bleakness and struggles of Holy Week to a tumultuous piece of music, saying that the resolution is far more meaningful because of having experienced the tensions. He writes "Music is remarkably instructive because, more than any other art form, it teaches us not to rush over tension, how to find joy and fulfillment through a temporal movement that includes struggles, clashes, and fractures. The temptation is to pass over what needs to be passed through."

Hmmm . . . when I was in seminary I worked with a pastor who absolutely refused to choose any hymns that were written in a minor key because they were too much of a "downer." He even would chew out the organist/choir director for choosing pieces that were minor. It seems to me, though (and I would agree), that Begbie is saying that we have to embrace the "minor" times of life if we are to fully grasp the MAJOR grace that the gospel offers us. Some of my favorite music is hauntingly sad, and now I wonder if at some deeper level I have understood that the minor key music in its own way leads us to a fuller understanding of God and God's presence in our world.

So . . .what is some of YOUR favorite music? (can be listed by genre, artist, style, or whatever)
Songs that tell stories (a la Nanci Griffith, John McCutcheon, and Carrie Newcomer), some classical ("Pictures at an Exhibition" by Mussorgsky, Pachelbel's Canon in D, and Vivaldi's "Four Seasons" come to mind), old and new folk, classic rock, and well-done, non-cheesy sacred music.

What is a favorite hymn of yours (especially a "minor key downer" one)?
Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence and O Sacred Head Now Wounded

Do you have a favorite "sad" singer or other musical artist? If so, who?
Cowboy Junkies, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Lucy Kaplansky, John Gorka, Dar Williams, Norah Jones, Josh Ritter, Joshua Bell, Yo-Yo Ma, Lyle Lovett

Who is your favorite "happy" musician?
Jimmy Buffett, Eddie from Ohio

Am sure I will think of a million more as soon as I end this post. I recognize that some of these artists cross the borders between introspective and more upbeat music frequently, but that's pretty much how life is.

Send me your favorite music ideas!

Reverent Reader


At 11/16/07, 6:48 AM , Blogger TET said...

I love Ben Folds who has some happy songs and some sad songs. I also love Josh Ritter who you mention. Did you know he went to Oberlin?

I have been listening to two classical pieces lately that both tell a story. Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet ballet, and Gounod's French Opera, Romeo et Juliet.

I also really like Eminem who despite being profane, obscene, rude, and insulting to almost everyone, often has poignant lyrics and well crafted raps.

At 11/16/07, 10:37 AM , Blogger Reverent Reader said...

Hey TET! I forgot about Ben Folds - that's a great one. I did NOT know that Josh Ritter went to Oberlin - very cool. I can respect Eminem's talent, but listening to him does not do much for me, it's just so hard to get past the crudeness and obscenity. Good luck with your running! LAK

At 11/17/07, 1:38 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Last Sunday we went to a lecture/concert at the Sandy Spring Museum, and the flute soloist commented that he didn't particularly like to play music in a major key - boring he called it. I tend to agree, there is little tension, and of course, little, if any, resolution. Make mine minor, anytime.

Nora Jones is my favorite singer, almost everything she does is in the minor.


At 11/17/07, 1:47 PM , Blogger jbl said...

We went to a concert last Sunday afternoon and the flutist, also the lecturer, remarked that he didn't particularly like to play major key selections (boring), much preferring the minor. Tension in the minor is probably the reason. Jeremy, every once in a while will impromptu "resolve" and minor hymn with a final major chord. Very uplifting for me.

I like Nora Jones, wonderful minor key singer. I also like your cellos.


At 11/17/07, 5:31 PM , Blogger Reverent Reader said...

Hi there JBL - Cellos are the ultimate chill-inducing minor key instruments, aren't they? I love the Elgar concerto for cello. See you tomorrow! Hey - didn't know you are a Norah Jones fan. She is great! LAK

At 11/20/07, 5:21 PM , Blogger ssf said...

I loved this post and it reminded me that throughout Western history, people have banned not only the minor scale but even intervals such as the tritone which was referred to as the "devil's interval" even though it naturally exists in both the major and minor modes. Like you said, what is the point of music if it does not evoke emotion. And discomfort, followed or not by resolution, happens to be a primary one.

At 11/20/07, 9:44 PM , Blogger Reverent Reader said...

Hey SSF - that is so interesting. I did not know that minor key music had such a history of being maligned. I do think that says something about the human condition. It is hard to "sit with" sadness, awe, reverence, or any of the other emotions that that music with tension evokes in us.


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