To know God and to make Him known.

How to Listen to Music and Why

I begin with a confession: I am not a musician. I cannot read music, although I can raise and lower my voice with the notes in a hymnal. I cannot play music, although I can whistle it. I cannot sing music…well maybe I can, but I have been denied membership in a church choir before. That being said, I am going to criticize how we listen to music.

Dorothy Sayers, author of an essay on education, wrote:

That I, whose experience of teaching is extremely limited, should presume to discuss education is a matter, surely, that calls for no apology...There is also one excellent reason why the veriest amateur may feel entitled to have an opinion about education. For if we are not all professional teachers, we have all, at some time or another, been taught. Even if we learnt nothing—perhaps in particular if we learnt nothing—our contribution to the discussion may have a potential value (“The Lost Tools of Learning,” by Dorothy Sayers, at

Allow me to paraphrase:

That I, whose experience of music is extremely limited, should presume to discuss music is a matter, surely, that calls for no apology. There is one excellent reason why the veriest amateur may feel entitled to have an opinion about music. For if we are not all professional musicians, we have all, at some time or another, listened to it. Even if we know nothing—in fact, especially if we know nothing about music—our contribution to the discussion may have a potential value. 

My contribution to this discussion will be geared specifically toward the reason why I know nothing about music: that aspect of music about which I know the most. 

We often look at a potential tool and ask what it will do for us. For example, I believe that having a cellular phone makes me more accessible in a way that I prefer. I also believe having it gives me accessibility to others in a way that I prefer. Thus, I have chosen to own and carry a cellular phone. What we often fail to ask is what it will do to us. Does my regular use of a cellular phone affect my ability to think slowly? Sure, I can blurt out answers on the fly, but am I losing the ability to think slowly…an ability that is also not exercised because I no longer write handwritten letters? Does it affect my ability to observe and understand body language?

It is this question—“What does a particular tool do to us?”—that has not been asked about music. Until the last eighty years or so, there were only two ways to listen to music: participatory and presented. I either walked around my home singing or I attended a live performance. In some cases, I brought the live performance into my own home. In these situations, listening to music was rare enough that it was always listened to actively. In the case of participatory music, actively listening is the only possibility. In the case of performance music, the expense and scarcity of such a performance ensured that listeners would be attentive and active in their listening. 

However, over the course of the last eighty years, technology (in the form of radios, albums, cassette tapes, something called an eight-track, compact discs, and mp3s) has afforded us greater and greater access to music. We are no longer limited to our own singing or to live performances. We can carry music with us wherever we go. In fact, the playing of music has become ubiquitous with companies like Muzak which deliver it as background music in every gas station and store we frequent. This has led not only to our listening to music passively, but it has trained us to think that music is meant to be in the background. Music is rarely listened to actively, preventing us from being able to distinguish good music from bad. As a result, we find ourselves preferring catchier pop music, which takes little effort when listening, against classical music, which takes training and work to appreciate. Furthermore, we have come to believe that only the musically-inclined need learn to play music, whereas in the past it was expected as part of one’s education to master a musical instrument—how else how would one get to hear it?

Music as background noise is a tragedy. Music is named for the Muses, the nine goddesses of Greek mythology, daughters of Zeus and Memory, who inspire creativity. Music is thus a gift from the gods. It would never have occurred to the Greeks or Romans to push a gift from the gods into the background of life; that would be the same as pushing the gods themselves into the background. Music is, in fact, a gift from God, and we have pushed it to the same place we are pushing Him. 
Music, moreover, is the only form of communication that is universal to all cultures in all times, apart from spoken language. Even written language has been largely limited in its cultural influence. Of the 3,000 languages in use today, only seventy of them have a written form. Music, however, is universal in its cultural reach. That is as much as to say life cannot exist without music. Or, at least, will not. In fact, the loss of music is a judgment from God:

Rejoice over her, O heaven, and you saints and apostles and prophets, for God has given judgment for you against her!" Then a mighty angel took up a stone like a great millstone and threw it into the sea, saying, "So will Babylon the great city be thrown down with violence, and will be found no more; and the sound of harpists and musicians, of flute players and trumpeters, will be heard in you no more, and a craftsman of any craft will be found in you no more, and the sound of the mill will be heard in you no more, and the light of a lamp will shine in you no more, and the voice of bridegroom and bride will be heard in you no more, for your merchants were the great ones of the earth, and all nations were deceived by your sorcery.

Rev 18:20-23 (italics added for emphasis) 

Be intentional. Listen to music actively and attentively. Listen, not just for the words, but for the emotions of the music itself. Listen to the notes that are being played, their repetition, their modification, their story. Feel the resolve. What God normally takes away in judgment, do not join the world in giving away.

CATEGORIES: Classical Christian Education

Leave a Comment