Do You Hear God in Good Music?
Listening for the Immortal Song
I had come face-to-face with the moment of a lifetime. As I waited, violin in hand, I felt my heart pounding and my palms sweating. I was about to perform on Detroit’s historic Orchestra Hall stage — as concertmaster of the orchestra. The concert was centered around the majestic Reformation Symphony, composed by Felix Mendelssohn. In the final movement, the symphony incorporates the theme from Luther’s bold hymn “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.”
The piece required every ounce of my concentration. I had to place each finger just so, drawing the bow over the strings at exactly the right angle and speed. And yet, even as my mind was focused and my fingers flying, my heart was soaring. As we reached the familiar hymn, I was smiling. This concert was no longer about me, about the applause, about performing under the lights on a massive stage. It was worship.
Music is a gift, and it comes from a bountiful giver. A well-crafted piece of music will delight our senses, stimulate our minds, and uplift our hearts. On earth, humans experience music as twisted and marred by sin. Because of this, we often forget how precious the gift of music is. But music is a part of God himself. Its very nature comes straight from the nature of the divine. As we revel in the beauty of music, we revel in the beauty of the one who created music.
Perfect Order and Wild Imagination
Music is both orderly and creative. There is a pattern that governs music. Even the basic structure of the musical scale creates beauty. The absolute perfection of the ladder of notes, each following the other in pristine order; the pure rightness of the fifth following the fourth or the seventh leading home; the sheer settledness of the completed pattern; each tiny part of the system contributes to the beauty.
And yet the pattern is flexible. The notes can be rearranged and combined to create thrilling effects. Amateur composers, such as myself, learn the rules of music, but the masters learn to bend the rules to bring beauty. Out of a single, simple pattern of eight notes, or twelve, a whole world emerges to be explored.
Thus it is with the Creator of music. It is he who built the structures, who spun the designs, who wove the patterns that govern the world of music in the first place. The consistency of music sprang from his orderly character, and yet the order he creates bursts with creative artistry. Psalm 104:24–25 describes God’s skill and genius well,
O Lord, how manifold are your works!
In wisdom have you made them all;
the earth is full of your creatures.
Here is the sea, great and wide,
which teems with creatures innumerable,
living things both small and great.
His power and imagination are inexhaustible.
Simple yet Immeasurable
Music is diverse. The mere fact that harmony supports and enhances melody is witness to this. Beyond this, the myriad of musical styles demonstrates the fact that music is for every culture and century. Its rich history displays the development from a single melody line to full-fledged symphonies, both stunningly beautiful. Classical Western orchestra members playing the music of Bach or Tchaikovsky or Vaughn Williams convey the same common human emotions as Eastern musicians playing wailing folk melodies on erhus and kotos, though the sounds themselves are vastly different. I have had the privilege of playing music with people across language barriers. The music drew us together and we became friends, with no need for words.
Music is simple enough for the one who does not understand it to enjoy it. Yet it is so complex that the most studied music scholar cannot find the end of it. It is a language that every person can understand and a joy that every person can experience.
This quality in music displays a truth about the perfect Songwriter. He is the triune One, three voices uniting in absolute harmony of character and purpose (2 Corinthians 13:14 and John 14:16–17) — each member singing his own melody, which intersects and combines with the other two to make a glorious symphony. And it is a symphony that extends to the ends of the earth (Revelation 5:9–10).
A Slowly Discovered Glory
Music is immeasurable. For centuries, eager explorers have probed the depths of musical possibility. Discovery has been stacked upon discovery, knowledge upon knowledge, and method upon method. The truth and beauty that were waiting to be found have slowly been uncovered as the ages roll by.
And yet, nobody has reached the bottom. Not a single person has discovered the limit. Because, after all, the source of music is the Infinite One. The music we experience is an outpouring of his own boundless beauty. It is a glowing display of his unsearchable depths.
Music cannot be defined except by itself. Some say that music is simply sound. Others, taking a more traditional approach, say that music is the combination of pitch and rhythm, creating melody and harmony. Music can be examined, broken down, interpreted, and analyzed. I myself have spent hours doing such things. Yet, in the end, music must be defined by itself. Music is music.
So it is with the first and most majestic music-maker. We may say that he is love, that he is triune, that he is wisdom or justice. But finally, we must recognize the fact that he simply is, and only because he is can we know him. Moses, afraid that the children of Israel would not recognize a call from the God of their fathers, asked God for a name to identify or describe himself. And in response, God declared simply, “I AM WHO I AM” (Exodus 3:14). God defines God. He simply is.
Music Will Not Pass Away
In the end, heaven and earth will pass away. The sun and moon will be forgotten in the face of a light far more brilliant and beautiful. Death will be no more and time itself will cease. But the glorious song that rings triumphant through the expanse of eternity will never end.
Music will wipe away the memory of pain and sorrow. It will proclaim the power and might of its composer. It will rejoice in the celebration of the Lamb’s marriage feast. And, most amazing of all, we — the created, the chosen, the redeemed, the glorified — will take part in it, singing, “Great and amazing are your deeds, O Lord God the Almighty! Just and true are your ways, O King of the nations! Who will not fear, O Lord, and glorify your name? For you alone are holy. All nations will come and worship you, for your righteous acts have been revealed” (Revelation 15:3–4).
In that perfect world, we will use music to honor our King throughout all eternity. We will be like a mirror, perfectly clear at last, reflecting the glory of the greatest song back to him. We will join the melody that he has given us to his own brilliant chorus, demonstrating in perfect unity his absolute genius. We will come face-to-face with the beautiful gift of music and use it as it was meant to be used: to praise the giver. And the glorious sound of worship and celebration will last far beyond the memory of time.