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Saturday, December 11, 2010

on music

I think the reason people like music is to suppress thought—the wrong kinds of thought—not to produce it.
            --Marvin Minsky, mathematician/philosopher/scientist

            A couple of days ago, I took my folder of quotations that I had copied down over the past few years, and compiled them into the entry, “Quotations.”  During that process, I wound up going over the one above, and it got me thinking about music.  As I have indicated in previous writings, I moved from a traditional, institutional church to a house church about two years ago.  Between growing up with television and radio, I was quite exposed to music, and then exposed more being sent to church.  Since coming to faith in Jesus in high school, I was, first, exposed to music in church more, and saw music outside the church in a more questioning light.  I can specifically point to the why of that.
            It actually goes back to when I was in junior high school.  My room was on the second floor of my parents’ house, and the heating system used wood and coal.  The first floor was extremely warm, and my parents had tv on in the evening, so I went upstairs in my room to study.  Given how the heating system worked, my room was about 50 degrees fareinheit.  I just always wore a sweater while studying.  Somewhere along the line I found an old radio.  The first time I plugged it in, the first station I ran into was WGN-AM in Chicago, which was a news talk station, although, at that time, all news talk stations had moderators which took strictly neutral positions on the stories of the time.  I remember thinking that it would be interesting if the moderator would take a position on one side or another.  Given that is what we have now, I am glad my wish didn’t come true any sooner than it did.  After nearly a year, I decided one day to turn the dial and see what other stations there were.  I fairly quickly ran into Top 40 rock stations.  When I was in 8th grade, I developed the idea of catching as many different Top 10 to Top 77 (that was from 770 in Milwaukee) countdown shows and tracking how songs went up and down.  Living in the Midwest with this old time am radio, in the evening I could find over 20 stations from around various parts of the east coast to Midwest which had such programs.  I can remember one evening having on WWWE in Cleveland, which had a 7 to 11 pm dj whose gimmick was to over feature the music of the Doors.  Be that as it may, one evening, he introduced for the first time Jimi Hendrix’s song “Foxy Lady.”  Given that this was about 1966, roughly half of the first sixty seconds was bleeped out.  It popped in my head that I didn’t use that kind of language, my friends didn’t, those that did weren’t my friends, and this was just wrong.  I wasn’t a believer, yet.  I just picked that up from however I grew up.  I turned the station off and stopped listening to rock stations, and junked my Top 10 tracking.  I don’t remember what I switched to, if anything.
            About a year later, I came to faith in Jesus.  Over time, I came to hear the idea, which I believe Calvin proposed that music was created for man to worship with.  From that, one can infer that all other use of music is a perversion of God’s creation, although no more than sinful man’s misuse of anything else.  I think I heard it, but may have felt that such a statement was an overstating a case to make an idea fit a theological system.
Still, I just have never cared much for secular music except for instrumentals.
            Maybe, I have thought of this because the heat went out in my house a couple of days ago, so I’ve worn sweaters more this week than I have since I was in that wood heated house.  Maybe, I have thought about it due to being a sports fan, and Wednesday being the day sports and music are inseperably connected by Howard Cosell, on Monday Night Football, 30 years ago that night, announcing the assassination of John Lennon.  Of course, Lennon’s song “Imagine” is about as close to stating the polar opposite of Christian ethics as one can write, and also one of the few songs that comes close to making an intellectual, albeit anti-logical, case for a point of view.  Then, I ran across the Minsky quote, above. 
            The last one year plus, I have been at a house church in which, shall we say, music has not been a featured item.  Most weeks we use some to begin worship, but those who play guitar haven’t really had time to practice, so it doesn’t come off anywhere close to as polished as the music I have experienced in church over the years.  I’ll argue that that isn’t a bad thing.  While we can use music to worship God, it, and all other music, can be used to get oneself into a mood.  That’s the same as what Minsky calls suppressing thought.  While I certainly thought when I was a teenager that I could study better with music on, and it may have been a positive versus battling the sounds coming from the tv on the first floor, I cannot work well with music with singing in the background.  More and more, I prefer silence to even instrumental music.  Still, music is helpful in eliminating logical speech in the background, whether it be the words of a gripping drama or the pre-school level communication of Nick Jr.  As my 4 year old grandson is in the next room, its usually Wow Wow Wubbzy that’s the distraction of the moment.
            That said, my question is, is even our worship music a means of suppressing thought?  The more I am thinking about it, I am feeling the answer is yes.  The radio going on in the car isn’t all that bad—one should be concentrating on driving safely first.  For the musician, I know there is all this research that musical training assists in non-musical intellectual study.  But just having music cranking, not performing it, but just having it in the background, can give one the feeling of being a part of something while not actually being a part of something, or even associating with others, although the dj is, in a one-way manner, associating with you and all kinds of other people, and everyone else cannot usually associate back.
            As I write this, I’m not saying, at this time, that I’ve gotten a mental grip on this idea yet.  What do you think?  

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