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Word Has Meanings

July 21, 2007

All languages consist of individual parts that essentially have no moral value. The smallest parts even have no meaning: qwertyuiop, asdfghjkl, zxcvbnm. The meaning comes when you take the smallest parts (letters) and arrange them into words. This is a simple proposition that works to refute the idea that music is amoral. Music has often been called a language. The idea, while true, does not solve the problem outright. The reason is that “word has meanings.”

Let’s take the word ‘jam.’ How many meanings can you think of for this simple word?

  1. I put jam on my toast this morning.
  2. These latest developments have me in a jam.
  3. Just jam the towel in the bag.
  4. I jammed my toe when I had to jam the brakes at the traffic jam.
  5. The basketball player had quite a jam!
  6. Let’s get our instruments and jam!

How about these words:

  • run
  • screw
  • help
  • dog

Where do all these meanings come from? They come from two places: the context immediately and the culture ultimately. I understand what meaning to put with ‘jam’ because I can read the other words and understand their relationship to ‘jam.’ I can read and understand the sentence because I am familiar with my own culture.

Can you imagine what the same arrangement of letters would mean in a different culture? What does ‘jam’ mean in Finnish, Dutch, Malaysian, German, Spanish, French, etc. Even English has cultural differences. I recently traveled quickly through London. While we in America wonder, everyone in London knows what ‘Mind the gap’ means (Watch your step). ‘Way Out’ in England means ‘Exit’ in America.

Our understanding of a language is dictated by the culture in which we find it. I believe the same is true with musical language.

Here’s your assignment: what does the music of our culture that worships sex, materialism, and rebellion sound like?

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Categories: Music, Voegtlin
  1. July 21, 2007 at 7:07 am

    Good article Pastor Voegtlin.

    It seems as though the only ones who are denying the morality of music are Christians who are acting wordly. They desire the world’s music therefore they make excuses as to why they can take good lyrics (then there are some with poor, or even bad lyrics) and mix it in with ungodly music. It doesn’t work.

    Art has a moral element to it. The various strokes of a paint brush can create a beautiful ‘Mona Lisa’ or an artist can paint a picture of the Lord Jesus Christ crucified upside down dipped in bowl of urine (which not long ago did happen and caused a big stir). Besides language, music is also an art.

    Now for my assingment: the music of our culture sounds like “Rock” and all its various forms. That would be ‘rock’ number four.

    1. Rock – a hard mineral.
    2. Rock – a huge diamond ring.
    3. Rock – to jitter, sway, or shake hard. (something like that)
    4. Rock – a genre of music which is by design reflects rebellion and immorality. (Even the secular, unsaved world defines rock music without denying its immoral elements).

  2. July 22, 2007 at 9:11 pm

    I think this is an excellent post and hits right on target. Music is a language and it communicates through notes, rhythm, combinations of notes, timing, and context.

    Here are some of the sounds of the music of our culture: breathy, swaying, sliding, herky-jerky, violently angry, pulsating, and unresolved. Other words could be used to describe it, and I didn’t want to use sensual or sexy in my description. It is not all about context either; some of the message is right there in the music itself, regardless of the associations that have been made.

    People know that music communicates this way. They KNOW it, but because there is no “chapter-and-verse” that has a play button, they say it is a Romans 14 issue. They can attempt to convince themselves of that, but they will stand before a holy God.

  3. July 23, 2007 at 5:56 am

    I have a good man in my church, our song-leader actually, who was saved out of the Rock & Roll music lifestyle. After seven years he is finally starting to use some of his music-writing skills for the Lord.

    He was so immersed in the worldly and sensual “language” of today’s music that he was afraid to write anything that would be a detriment to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

    No one can tell this dear brother that music is either neutral or that it does not convey a message with or without words.

  4. July 23, 2007 at 6:01 am

    I think we need to be careful about using example like Art provides above as the basis for our authority. It’s not difficult for me to imagine parallel situations that wouldn’t hold up- say, a man who had a problem with internet pornography refusing to touch a computer or the internet because he’s convinced they’re inherently evil. I’m not arguing against the point, but experiential evidence like this isn’t particularly convincing to those not already sympathetic to your point.

  5. July 23, 2007 at 7:45 am

    Brother Greg,

    The point I was making was his knowledge of music in general and of the sensual aspects of certain music in particular.

    He has not been afraid of singing or being a part of our music program. He has heartily embraced the “songs of Zion”. My point was about the “neutrality” issue and the fact that music conveys a message with or without words.

    Actually, I have very little reason to believe that I will ever change anyone’s point of view with this point. I know this because Scriptural points have been made by others in this thread, and that doesn’t seem to convince them either.

    I also didn’t say that I agreed with his fear of using his music-writing talents. In fact, I am encouraging him, with my oversight, to use his music-writing talents for the Lord.

  6. July 23, 2007 at 8:52 am

    I don’t mind a little preaching to the choir from Art, but I understand, Greg. It bothers me about the other side, but I do understand. We actually have to argue, using real evidence, not personal illustrations, etc.

  7. Anvil
    July 23, 2007 at 12:15 pm

    The language parallel is an interesting one to me, though I don’t see how it is helpful to the “music is inherently moral” argument. I have never argued that music has no meaning, only that its meaning is external, and that is just how meaning is given to words.

    The sounds or letters that make up a word have no inherent meaning at all, as pointed out in the article. That meaning comes from the background of the word, eventually pointing back to the culture. As we all know, words can change meaning over time. Consider the word “gay.” 60 years ago or so, it would have meant something completely different for someone to say “I’m a gay person” than it does today. Does this say anything at all about the inherent meaning of the word itself? The article itself points out that jam can mean many different things, but because of this, it clearly has no inherent meaning.

    For another example, consider the word “hell.” Christians in the U.S. hearing that word in a sermon would know exactly what is being referred to, and it’s not a nice thing. However, in the German language, that is the word for “light” as in “It’s light outside.” Clearly the sounds/letters/construction/etc. of that word do not have inherent meaning, otherwise this complete differentiation of meanings would not have occurred between the two languages.

    I don’t argue for the use of worship music having the popular sound of the world, not because I think that music is evil inherently, but because in the minds of people from most, if not all, western cultures today, that music is associated with the world and it’s pursuits of pleasure and self. I don’t personally think “sex” or “drugs” when hearing popular music in a restaurant or store, and that is true for others as well, even if the music was intended to portray those things (I’m not talking about lyrics here), but it does remind me of the world and the world system. For me, that is enough to not consider music like that for worship, even though that is a subjective judgment. It still tells me nothing about the music itself. Even if the association were not enough, the sound of the music would to me be inappropriate for worship (also subjective), unless you think worship should be similar to what was happening around the golden calf, but that also applies to much music that would not be considered immoral even by those of the same mind as those that run this blog.

    The problem with this argument is that music and language are not exactly analogous. Pointing this out is not exactly helpful to my position, since the language argument goes along very well with what I am contending about music, but I’m not trying to win an argument — I just want to get to the truth. If you hear something in a language you don’t understand, and it is spoken without emotional inflection, hearing it does not affect your emotions at all (although I guess one could get frustrated from not understanding anything), but one cannot say that about music, although again, I believe it is the person’s complete makeup that affects which emotion(s) are felt, since it is clear that these emotions are not universal. Also, once one does understand the meaning of a language, the written word can convey propositional truth, such as “Man can only be justified by faith in Jesus Christ alone” (because the symbols have very exact, agreed-upon meanings) where music apart from words added to it can do no such thing. Therefore, I think the comparison of language to music is only partially useful.

    I do find it amazing that for some, when the Bible does have something to say about an area, it is commendable for us to get the Bible’s view on it, but when the Bible is less clear, all of a sudden, not accepting man’s “expert” opinion as truth and wanting a biblical view is derided as not having “chapter-and-verse.” (And before you even start to reply, I’m not talking about an idea like using cocaine because the Bible says nothing about it particularly. However, for things that aren’t clearly stated, there needs to be clear principle, not just subjective opinion, or worse, the misapplication of what *is* there. For music, there is clear principle in not wanting to be like or look like the world in our associations. There is much less [if not none at all] on whether the music itself is inherently moral. In this whole argument on music, I’ve never heard a presentation of exactly what music is music God would approve of, and the proofs that would go along with that showing how to evaluate that music.) Either the Bible is all that is needed to live godly in Christ Jesus or it isn’t. We can certainly consider other sources of information in addition to the Bible, but of course, they do not have the same level of authority, and that is especially true when, as in this case, the experts themselves do not all agree.

  8. July 23, 2007 at 2:10 pm

    Anvil,

    I think there are some problems with what you are saying that are tell-tale to your position. I think you have us all wrong on—‘we’re all Biblical on certain things that are very conservative, but not all-Biblical on things like music, just to keep being the most conservative.’ I’ll speak below as to why you are wrong, and my post this week will likely deal with it. Unfortunately, I won’t be around to comment on anything after I write until Saturday, because we are heading up to an already proceeding church camp on Wednesday morning, leaving late incidentally because my son (our childest child) is in a brass camp until Tuesday evening. Anyway here are the problems, and these will be Scriptural and theological, so contradictory to a major point you made above:
    1) God created language and God created music. God designed language and music both to communicate. He created words and sentences and paragraphs as vehicles of communication. Verbal or written communication can be filthy (Col. 3:8) and corrupt (Eph. 4:29). Life and death are in the power of the tongue (Prov. 18:21). Since God told us not to communicate filthy and corrupt and to speak edifying, etc., then He assumes that we know what that means. He expects us to judge these things. We know what they are. Is this a Romans 14 issue, that is, corrupt communication? No, it is immoral. We also know that music does the same as words. Why? I don’t have to give you a super advanced theology to prove it; it must be just in Scripture and that settles it. Psalm 89:15 mentions a “joyful sound.” Psalm 92:3 calls for a “solemn sound.” Isaiah 23:16 mentions a “sweet melody.” 1 Corinthians 14:7, 8 teach this explicitly: “And even things without life giving sound, whether pipe or harp, except they give a distinction in the sounds, how shall it be known what is piped or harped? For if the trumpet give an uncertain sound, who shall prepare himself to the battle?” I also think Exodus 32:17 comes into play: “And when Joshua heard the noise of the people as they shouted, he said unto Moses, There is a noise of war in the camp.” All of these passages combined are more than our two proof texts for inspiration (2 Timothy 3:16, 17; 2 Peter 1:20, 21). So God says that we can judge and that we can know what the message of the music is. Do we know what the attire of a harlot is? We go outside the Bible to these music experts because there is opposition that says, we can’t know what music means. The experts say they are wrong, that it is a language. I already know that. I don’t personally need the experts, except to get the language to explain it to people like you and others. To conclude here though, the Bible teaches that music can have inherent meaning. As a language it can communicate the wrong thing as well, an uncertain sound, the wrong message.
    2) Just because music and language are not exactly analgous doesn’t follow that they are not analgous in the fact that they both communicate a message. Everyone knows they do it differently, so this critique is wrong-headed.
    3) We do know what God is against in Scripture, and so if music communicates those things, we know that God doesn’t like it. The wisdom of this world is sensual (James 3:15). This would presuppose that we know what is sensual. We can judge sensuality. We know that sensuality is wrong outside of the marriage bed (don’t make this a ‘what’s acceptable in the marriage bedroom’ conversation, please) [Col. 3:5; Heb. 13:4].
    4) It doesn’t really matter ultimately whether unsaved people can or cannot judge the right music, because they do not have spiritual discernment (1 Cor. 2:14, 15), so to say that the sound can’t be judged right or wrong, because unsaved people don’t know the difference, doesn’t make the argument.

    You have at least these four problems, and I believe that blows the argument for you. Notice above that I provided the Scripture that is sufficient, I believe, to believe if one cares to believe.

  9. Anvil
    July 26, 2007 at 1:56 pm

    Pastor Brandenburg,

    This will probably get somewhat long, but there is a lot to respond to in your post.

    First, I would like to point out that I said nothing about being ‘conservative’ in my observation about the scriptural position. You read that into what I was saying.

    OK, on to your points.

    Point 1) I would agree with you that written/spoken communication can be corrupt, though it’s because of the meanings given to the words, not the sounds themselves. This even applies to expressions. If would mention a “Devil-dog,” an American would think of a tasty, though somewhat unhealthy treat. If I used the German versions of those two words together, and said it to a German person, it’s an extreme profanity. But what makes it so? Certainly not the sounds of the words. In that context, that would represent corrupt speech. Of course I wouldn’t argue that corrupt speech is a Romans 14 issue. But corrupt speech comes from what the evil heart of man is thinking, not from the actual symbols he uses, though those symbols do have meaning in context. Out of their context, they mean nothing to the hearer. I also believe that music can communicate corruptly, but that’s different from saying it’s the music itself that is corrupt.

    On to the scriptures you quoted. First, how is a distinctly joyful, solemn, or sweet sound either good or evil? You certainly can’t say that any one of those is better than the other — it depends on which is appropriate and correct at the time. Again, I’ve contended only that music is neutral in morality, not necessarily in emotion. As to the distinct sounds from a trumpet in battle, how is “Go left” more or less evil than “go right?” The fact that there is a necessary distinction in the trumpet sound for this purpose does not make one of the trumpet, harp, or pipe sounds more evil than the other one. The Exodus passage is one I alluded to in my own post. What I find interesting about it is that Moses and Joshua on hearing the same sound came to two totally different conclusions about what was taking place. The sound was clearly not that distinct, and did not have an obvious, unambiguous meaning.

    As to “the attire of a harlot,” how is that truly judged? Normally, we would consider mainly two things: immodest, and drawing attention to oneself (something the Bible clearly speaks against), and in extremes that usually make their profession obvious. But again, the particulars are culturally determined. Even the most modest, fundamental woman of America today would be considered immodest, and “wearing the attire of a harlot” in a muslim country and culture, maybe even by the Christian converts in that culture, where even revealing hair is considered immodest. Or consider someone of western origin visiting a culture where women are half-naked all the time. Certainly you can judge their dress immodest, but you might have absolutely no idea from the attire what a harlot looks like in that culture, since even the “decent” people are immodest. More close to home, I was just reading an article not two weeks ago that talked about prostitution in our city. Because of police enforcement, prostitutes have taken to dressing like the “girl next door” to avoid attracting attention, but there are certain color combinations, or certain combinations of accessory items that indicate to the “customers” what their profession is. Would you call that the attire of a harlot? I would argue that it is, although to those not around that culture, it wouldn’t indicate that at all. In other words, it can be judged (and I’ve not been arguing against any judgment of music), but the judgment is not on inherent value, rather on association and context.

    Wrapping up on point 1), if you don’t need the “experts” for your argument, especially considering your point 4), you should probably leave them out of it, so that a biblical view of music can be determined without their often conflicting viewpoints. My whole point about them is that their view cannot really be trusted, which it seems you are indicating as well. It also means that your post citing all those unsaved “experts” did not really help establish a biblical view of music.

    Point 2) I agree that music can communicate a message, but that message is not distinct in the same way that spoken or written language is unless (like the above example of trumpet calls to battle) the music has been arbitrarily given certain meanings (which, by the way, would mean nothing to those not trained to listen for the signals, a further argument against inherent meaning). My point about the comparison is that language meaning is completely artificial and external to the written symbols or spoken sounds — i.e. the meaning is not inherent. I believe the same is true for music I wouldn’t use — it can carry meaning that is inappropriate for worship or have too much association with the world, but that doesn’t make that music inherently evil.

    Point 3) Assuming for the moment that music can reliably and unambiguously communicate sensuality, in what way is that good or evil? You just admitted that sensuality has a correct expression that the scripture itself calls honorable and undefiled. Therefore, sensuality is not inherently evil, though I would personally argue that music associated with such is unusable for worship expression because of the obvious inappropriateness.

    Point 4) Dealt with as part of point 1).

    You have shown from the scriptures you presented that music can be distinct or undistinct, and that it can communicate emotions. In no way is that the same as showing that music is inherently moral.

    P.S. As an exercise, maybe you could have a Christian musical expert (one who agrees with you) evaluate the first 8 notes of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony to show how they are good and/or evil and how to know that. Before you tell me that they are just notes, not music, I would point out that those 8 notes are recognizable by practically anyone in the U.S. as music, even if they have had little or no exposure to classical music. I don’t want to know if they exhibit triumph, foreboding, expectation, tension, or anything like that. I want to know how they measure up morally.

  10. July 27, 2007 at 7:50 pm

    Anvil,

    If this is an answer to my post in discernment, then there is a lot you didn’t answer. My discernment post is a much more complete presentation to you, written before you posted this. Even in the above, there is a lot that you didn’t answer.

    I didn’t say that the music language and the word language were the same, but they are both languages that still do communicate.

    Consider this logical syllogism:
    Words are communication. Communication is corrupt. Therefore, words are corrupt.

    Now this:
    Music is communication. Communication is corrupt. Therefore, music is corrupt.

    Words by definition have meaning and music by definition has meaning. Does that not mean that context does not affect? Of course not. No one said that. You are arguing; however, that there is no inherent morality in music. Words do have inherent morality. God says so. I think He’s expert enough for you.

    Evil speech comes from an evil heart, but the speech itself is still evil.  I referenced those either above or in my last post.  You would be denying Scripture to say that the communication itself is not corrupt.

    Judging the attire of a harlot takes discernment.  Just because we don’t have chapter and verse as to what that is doesn’t mean that it isn’t a sin to wear that attire.  The point is that we are required by God to use principles to discern, and when we don’t discern, it is still evil, even if something wasn’t explicitly said in Scripture.

    Music itself can be sensual. It isn’t just the association. Certain rhythms and lines of composition communicate sensuality regardless of the context. God says there is a solemn sound and a joyful sound. That was my point. The music does communicate. Solemness and joy are inherent, not based on association. You are reading into it to say otherwise.

    You hopped on sensuality.  Not all sensuality is wrongly communicated, correct.  It shouldn’t be to God.  It should be avoided outside of a marriage context, much like certain words and actions are to be avoided outside of those boundaries.  So you see, nothing is different from anything else that is moral or immoral—words or actions or even thoughts.

    If I said a curse word in German, and an expert in German told what I said, I would be helped in not saying it again, wouldn’t I?  Did the expert help me practice more Scripturally?

    I don’t think someone can judge morality of 8 notes necessarily. That’s why this takes discernment, Anvil. The standard phrase in music is 8 bars, not 8 notes. You make a statement in the music in a phrase. It’s a different language than the spoken word. Some music expresses something that is moral, and we judge partly by the fact that it doesn’t communicate something immoral.

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