Tuesday, January 20, 2009

The lyrics

Shakespeare, whose plays have moved us for centuries, found consolation for a broken heart when he wrote:
When griping grief the heart doth wound,
and doleful dumps the mind oppresses,
then music, with her silver sound,
with speedy help doth lend redress."
For a long time, the human race has known of the powerful effect of music. Plato wrote of music's penetration into the very soul. There is something about the music we listen to that great men and women throughout history have recognized, but is too easily lost in today's white noise.

Music is something that is fundamental to the human experience. It is, perhaps, the most intrinsic of the arts, and the most widespread; everybody has music in their lives, whether they surround themselves with it or whether it just happens. It is "intrinsic" in that its effect is immediate and the medium of its appreciation is primarily emotion, though through intellectual reflection one's experience of music is improved. But a person does not need to be intelligent to enjoy and benefit from music. The essential power that music carries is one of the beautiful realities of Creation.

That being said, I must express a conviction that has risen from my own experience: the choice of music that an individual makes is far more important than most people realize, and has a far greater effect on life. The essential danger - and the potential blessing - lies in the lyrics, I believe. The problem is this: since music is basically emotional, the intellectual side of it (the lyrics) often gets ignored. The "sound" is what is important to most of us, and what the song actually says has little impact on whether we like it or not. This only becomes more and more true when considering more and more popular music. I've seen this revealed when I've asked friends a simple question: "Why do you like this song?" The answer: "I don't know, it's got a good beat."

It's easy to just listen to music because it has a good beat; but a beat is not all that music has. Songs are emotional; they make us feel exuberant, or energetic, or passionate, or angry, or loving, or any one of the many emotions of human experience. The emotion stirred by music is wonderful, but music is more than a feeling.

We can do better. Music should satisfy both our aesthetic and intellectual faculties. What makes the classic hymns so great and enduring? They combine both uplifting music and edifying prose. Songs that are well written, musically and lyrically, are a delight that goes deeper than mere feeling. It is the knowledge that what you are enjoying is fundamentally good. And if the purpose of a song is to communicate something from the artist to the listener, then that purpose is best fulfilled when the two are in agreement both in heart and mind.

In my own experience, choosing good music to live your life to can only improve it.


  1. A good start Ben. I couldn't agree with you more. I wonder often what kind of message I'm imbibing without paying proper attention. I worked in a mall based music store for a long time listening to music I didn't (& couldn't) choose, and it made me keenly aware of the tension--and the listening habits of people. Thanks for taking the time to write it down.

  2. Back when I was in college, when dinasaurs and vinyl LPs roamed the land, some kids would have record burning "parties", which I thought was a little extreme.

    However, my taste had always been more for Christian and my collection was probably about 65% Christian at that point.

    But over the next few years, I became more and more uncomfortable with secular music. As I studied it, it seemed that the most of the lyrics were either immoral, depressing or both.

    So I did finally get rid of any cassette or LP that had secular lyrics. But not with a big bon fire.


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