Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Questions about Previous Post

A colleague at work has asked some questions about my previous post on music. But first, some context is required. Yesterday at lunch I argued that certain types of music are intrinsically sinful; however, upon reflecting on it, I realised that my position was not correct, and this led to the modified position articulated in my previous post. One of my colleagues who had been present in the original discussion has written that my modified position is really no different to what I said originally when I claimed that certain musical forms are innately sinful. I shall now attempt to answer his objections (which are in red).

"How are pentatonic scales circular, but diatonic scales are not? They both begin at a certain note and end an octave higher on the same note. The only difference is that a pentatonic scale does this in five steps and a diatonic scale in seven. I don’t see how one reflects a circular view of history and the other doesn’t. Also, even western “classical” composers have used pentatonic scales, as well as many types of European folk-music (i.e., it’s not limited to Asians). "

Excellent question. In the diatonic scale a piece sounds resolved when it returns to the tonal centre. Hence the importance of the cadence. A piece in the pentatonic scale, on the other hand, does not have a tonal centre and can consequently end anywhere on the 5-note scale. To test that this is true just improvise on the piano's black notes, which are a pentatonic scale. You will find that it doesn't really matter where you begin your piece or where you end it, and it is hard to make it sound wrong. As a child I used to enjoy having my mother tune her harp to a pentatonic scale and then improvising, because anything I played would sound nice - it doesn't have to have progressions, flow, cadences or forward movement in order to be aesthetically pleasing. That is also why wind chimes are often based on a pentatonic scale.

Pentatonic music is circular in the sense that it isn't 'going' anywhere, it isn't progressing towards a resolution/ending because it doesn't have to, just like a circle. This is why Eastern music can often be very atmospheric and evokes the idea of rain falling or evaporating. It has an ethereal, other-worldly quality which is why Impressionist composers liked experimenting with it. Music in the tonal tradition, on the other hand, is linear because it normally lends itself to a beginning, middle and end. The epitome of this is the sonata form in which there is, quite literally, a beginning, a middle and an end, and we are taken on a journey of modulation in between. Although it would be difficult to prove, my theory is that one of the factors contributing to such musicological developments has been the prevalence of Biblical theism in European culture.

"What makes the music “bad” if it’s not sinful."

In my new position on music I did not claim that certain music is 'bad', so I'm not sure what the context of your question is. You would have to define what you mean by 'bad' before I would feel comfortable answering this.

"You warn against Christians against “naively” accepting certain types of music despite positive lyrics – but why should they avoid it?"

In my previous post I did not say that Christian should avoid certain types of music. On the contrary, I wrote, "this does not mean that playing or listening to such music is a sin..."

Similarly, I did not argue that Christians are naive when they accept certain types of music. Rather, my point is that Christians are being 'naive' when they think that it is only the words, and not the music itself, that articulates subtle religious commitments. I gave examples to back that up.

"If it’s not sinful, what basis do you have for telling people that it’s not acceptable?"

Where did I say that certain music is either sinful or not acceptable? If you are referring to my comments at lunchtime yesterday, then I will be the first to acknowledge that my position was not defensible. Perhaps you are assuming that certain music being sinful/unacceptable is a corollary to my claim that music articulates subtle religious commitments. If so, then you will need to first prove that the former follows from the latter.

"Is it just aesthetically bad? If so, that seems like more of a personal preference (like preferring “good” French cooking to “bad” American cheeseburgers)."

Are you suggesting that the difference between aesthetically good art and aesthetically bad art can be reduced to personal preference? If so, then I would want to argue against such aesthetic relativism, although I suspect your point is simply that there is not a moral dimension to music, which I will accept since, as I pointed out in my previous post, sin is a function of the human heart and not things themselves.

"If someone is satisfied with a lower quality of music, how is that bad? I guess I’m a little confused – this seems basically the same as what you were saying at lunch."

Hopefully the above answers will have cleared away that confusion. If not, let me know

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