Music and Learning

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malthumbNot too long ago, a famous international gospel star visited our neighbourhood. His fans, young and old, turned up for his concert with great anticipation. Their willingness to lighten the weight of their wallets substantially to attend the event proved it that they had high expectations.

Comments after the event, however, proved that not all who attended were equal in their appreciation: “It was absolute worship” has a slightly different flavour to a comment like “This old man, dressed like a rebellious teenager, made an overwhelming noise.” Welcome to the worship war zone! How do people professing to love the same God come to such wide ranging conclusions? More importantly, what role does music, and particularly church music play in our lives?

In this article I hope to explore some of the principles that might assist you as to strive to meaningfully worship God as we meet in our corporate services on the Lord’s Day. Let’s start by looking at the interesting relationship between music and learning in the context of worship.

How the brain stores information is a fascinating: Memories, impressions and words are trapped and stored in chemicals by means of electric impulses. Some things “stick” and others are lost. How exactly this all works is not a simple matter. We do know, however, of at least two conditions that makes things “stick” (i.e. these conditions helps us learn and remember). These conditions are true for lab rats, but they happen to be true for humans too.

The first condition that assists learning is repetition. You may have heard the saying: “Repetition is the mother of all study.” Although we won’t focus on this condition in this article, it is worth noting, since Paul didn’t find it bothersome to write about some issues again. That is why we sing “Before the throne” again even if we have done so not too long ago. We call these reminders. It’s helpful to mind old truths again.

The second condition that enhances learning is emotional arousal. The extent to which the senses were involved in activities around the tabernacle seems to point in that direction. Our five senses play an important role in the arousal of our emotions. As your mind processes these impressions, you can hardly be left unaffected. It would be interesting to know what happens in your mouth when you think of a hot spongy baked dessert with a sticky caramel sauce. The senses and mind working in harmony can cause some interesting (scary?) effects! (The mind is powerful indeed!) This collaboration of mind and emotions can be helpful for learning.

There are a number of ways by which emotions can be aroused for the purpose of learning. Skilled speakers deploy a whole arsenal of literary devices to capture the mind of the audience. Make them see, make them taste, make them smell, make them feel and somehow they hear you better. These speakers can be known by their impressive toolbox with which they work up excitement in their hearers. Unwitting listeners may not necessarily be aware of the tools, but they do know they like to listen. If you give the matter some thought, you would quickly realise that their toolbox could also be used to concoct some evil results. We know very well that emotion-rousing speakers can be dangerous. Think of Adolf Hitler in this regard. Good speakers can be dangerous!

But the fact that emotions can be abused does not mean that arousing them is evil in itself. The key difference is that a speaker may either get his audience excited about himself or he may get them excited about his message. His purposes could thus be selfish or noble. The same is obviously true for musicians.

Establishing the link between music and emotions requires no rocket science. If you’re not convinced, watch Jaws, or just strip out the musical component of the sound track of any movie for that matter. You’re likely to be bored reasonably quickly. Moviemakers understand the important link between music and emotions. Advertisers understand this too, and pay millions to ensure that you “learn” as you watch the hero use their product.

Now that we have considered the link between learning and emotions, the question obviously is, what on earth does all of this have to do with church music? Well, I’m sure you have guessed it. We go to church for a whole number of reasons, but one of those is that we delight in God’s Word. We go because we want to learn more of it. We would like to have everything just right so that we may learn more of God’s truth. And in this regard music is meant to help us. Can you imagine a service without music; our sound men scrolling through the lyrics on the overhead as we all monotonously repeat the words with no tune or rhythm to it? Sunday lunch and a whole range of other thoughts would probably pop up on the radar in your mind as we all drone along. Music makes it better, doesn’t it? It makes the words we sing come alive. It prepares us emotionally for what we want to do: to learn.

For the Old Testament community, God instituted a place and activities where all the senses the He created for man were engaged in worshipping Him: Eyes, ears, noses, mouths and hands were all commandeered to praise God. But that was not the only important matter: God demanded more than worship and sacrifice. He required thought upon truth. And thought needed to lead to obedience.

Clearly, in the midst of engaging all the senses in a seemingly real and emotionally arousing way, there was a real danger: People could (and did) worship Him with their mouths, but their hearts were far from Him. It should be quite evident that this is a real danger for us too. Thank God for music, but realise that music itself could also be the focal point of our worship. (“Thank you, O Music, for making me feel so good. I delight in you!”)

Those who lead others in worship often display excellence and as such impress worshippers. The challenge that they as well as the worshippers face is that worship could be merely be an event for being impressed and excited by people and music, without a thought to why God allowed the senses to be stimulated in a delightful way; namely, to bring glory to Him. The attitude of the heart in two people standing next to each other in church as they sing could be worlds apart, yet outwardly they may be doing exactly the same thing. God is looking for those who worship in spirit and truth. Music helps to tune our hearts to the truth of the words that we sing.

Thank God that worship involves our senses and our emotions—it makes us feel good. But be aware that worship involves more: It involves truth. Our greatest concern in worship cannot merely be the feelings that music stir in us. If our intention in worship is merely to make us feel better, we are deceiving ourselves if we call it worship. If worship music is merely meant for making us feel good, it can’t be described as much more that a cheap drug.

For worship to be meaningful we need to take ourselves in hand and remind ourselves that true worship demands that we think about truth that we sing. It also prepares us for the truths we listen to after we finished singing. If the truths we sing and listen to on our day of worship helps us to joyfully live the other six days to the glory of God, then we are really worshipping and then music has fulfilled a meaningful purpose.

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