What does music mean? Most people today, without realizing it or giving much of a second thought, think of music and art along the lines of 18th-century philosopher David Hume, who wrote:
Beauty is no quality in things themselves: It exists merely in the mind which contemplates them; and each mind perceives a different beauty. One person may even perceive deformity, where another is sensible of beauty.
Beauty, in other words, is in the eye of the beholder, and nothing more. Therefore, Hume continued in words that resemble a teenager telling mom and dad to get off his back: “Every individual ought to acquiesce in his own sentiment, without pretending to regulate those of others.”
Rejecting notions of objective truth and universal morality, many in the modern world assume that beauty is not a category of reality that exists outside of the human mind but is entirely a subject of individual taste. Music can be fun, edgy, or distracting. It might even carry therapeutic benefits. But it isn’t rooted in anything transcendent, eternal, or objective.
Recently on the Upstream podcast, my colleague Shane Morris discussed music and meaning with Dr. Jeremy Begbie, a theologian at Duke Divinity School and the University of Cambridge. Dr. Begbie, whose work centers on the intersection of music and theology, argued that music is in fact not neutral. Rather, it is a function of the way we are made by God and ultimately points to deep truths about God and about ourselves.
Here’s Dr. Begbie:
I was speaking to an atheist musicologist, a very distinguished musicologist not so long ago. And he said that music, he believes, ultimately, is about tuning us in to each other and to the physical world at large. It’s about belonging, you see. ‘Oh, how interesting,’ I said. It’s interesting that Christianity has a little bit to say about that. It’s not primarily our job in the world … to be individuals who simply express themselves or simply get things off their chest, so to speak.
God has made us for each other and has made us to live in harmony with this physical world in which we’re set. And for me, therefore, it makes wonderful sense to say that this is what music is about. Indeed, it’s what language is about. It’s what hundreds of things are about—just this kind of worldview.
Historically, many philosophers—from Plato to Aristotle to St. Augustine—reflected on the “three transcendentals”: goodness, truth, and beauty. Christian thinkers argued that these are attributes of God and therefore clues to the meaning of life. In this view, beauty is an objective reality, grounded in the nature and work of God Himself. This explains why beauty can make such a meaningful impact on human beings. Even those who reject the idea of universal truths and are cynical about our ability to truly know anything cannot help but wrestle with the pull of beauty.
Joseph Pearce explained it this way in a recent article in The Imaginative Conservative, “What … is the role of good art? … The answer is to be found in the power of beauty to touch heads that have forgotten how to think and hearts that have forgotten how to love.”
In his convictions he never separated truth from good and beauty; in his artistic creativity he never placed beauty apart from the good and the true. And he was right, because these three live only in their unity. The good, taken separately from truth and beauty, is only an indistinct feeling, a powerless upwelling; truth taken abstractly is an empty word; and beauty without truth and the good is an idol. For Dostoevsky, these were three inseparable forms of one absolute Idea.
This is not to suggest that there is no room for subjective experience and interpretation of beauty. Expressions of art, including music, must be perceived by those with tastes and preferences shaped by experiences, culture, knowledge, and various degrees of virtue. We might disagree on whether a Bach concerto carries more or less aesthetic value and technical excellence than a modern rock ballad. Still, that both can be distinguished from meaningless chaos, says something about order and design in the world.
As does the fact that music is more than mere stimulus-response. Even if we don’t know why, musical beauty points us beyond ourselves and offers a clue about the meaning of the universe and the God who made it and us.
This Breakpoint was co-authored by Kasey Leander. For more resources to live like a Christian in this cultural moment, go to breakpoint.org.
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