Note: if you're viewing this as an email or in a feed reader, you'll probably have to view this in my actual blog to be able to play the embedded audio samples. Sorry about that!
Music, like all forms of art, always carries an objective meaning, or message. We discussed this in my first post a few days ago.
But I missed a potential objection that is worth answering. Essentially, the argument goes like this: "Your examples included lyrics. The message of the music derives from the message of the lyrics." Even though I attempted to demonstrate that this was not the case (through the obvious ill-fit of swapping words between the two tunes), this does not fully answer this argument. It could be thought that the reason we think of Onward Christian Soldier's tune as marching and militaristic is because of the words that we've learned to associate with it. In other words, someone might say that if we were the first people to hear the tune after Arthur Sullivan composed it (before any words were ever sung to it), we would not naturally associate it with marching, armies, or any other particular mood or emotion.
This argument could be disproved in any number of interesting ways. I would challenge anyone to try both Onward Christian Soldiers and Now the Day is Over on an infant and see which works best as a lullaby. (The child is obviously too young to comprehend the meaning of the words, but if still you're concerned about that, you could always just hum.)
We could also turn to music that has no words, at least not to our knowledge. Here's such a tune. Tell me that this doesn't convey a generally happy, upbeat mood to you:
I can already hear someone objecting that the reason this sound makes us happy is not because of the melody itself but because of the food that is associated with this sound. I would argue that there is a reason that this particular sound was used to sell this food. It's not coincidence that the ice cream man doesn't use a police siren to attract business. But then someone could say that there is nothing particularly alarming about the sound of the police siren either, it's only the emergencies that we have come to associate with the siren that causes it to be alarming... sigh.
For such an argument I have a possible answer: compare the mood of the following two sound clips. Neither of them has words. Neither is associated with any events (that I'm aware of). These sounds are both short and relatively simple, so the emotions they evoke will not be strong. But if lyricless music is by itself a meaningless combination of sound waves, either of these sounds should be equally attractive. But if music can have an inherent mood or emotion to it, then one of these sounds will be substantially more pleasant than the other.
Not only does every piece of music carry an objective meaning, but the objective meaning it carries is initially the same for everyone. We see this 'uniform perception of beauty' in other forms of aesthetics as well. No one instinctively thinks a sunset is ugly, or that feces smell good.
Generally we all react to music the same way. This is why movie producers can (and do) use music very effectively to aid the impact of their visual images. If the "scary music" didn't give us all pounding hearts and widened eyes and sweating palms even before we see the villain produce a hidden revolver--if the scary music made some people relaxed, and yet others feel romantic--music would be useless in movies. Producers of radio and television advertisements have also learned to use the universal meanings of music to produce the desired emotion in their potential buyers.
I ended my last post by asking how music can be evil, and I will end this post by answering. We have the capabilities to feel not only legitimate and helpful emotions, but also unholy emotions. Music can stir up either kind of emotion. It can awaken awe and joy and worship, and it can also arouse lust and rage and rebellion. We should aim to honor Jesus by feasting on songs that both arouse righteous affections in our hearts.
But, sometimes people react to the same piece of music differently! If music has objective meaning, why don't we all have the same musical tastes? That's the question I'll attempt to answer in my next post about music. Keep your comments coming!