Who killed harmony? A look at our musical condition
by Roger Hines
May 18, 2014 12:30 AM | 2591 views | 3 3 comments | 33 33 recommendations | email to a friend | print
OK, somebody needs to bring it up. Music, that is. Church music for sure, but also the power of music in general.

In a stinging critique of American higher education titled “The Closing of the American Mind,” University of Chicago professor Allan Bloom argues that Americans need to re-think the nature and purpose of their colleges and universities. Perhaps surprisingly, Bloom addresses music, claiming that education has abandoned all things classical for the “bodily contact, the sensual grunts, and the premature ecstasy” of rock.

Bloom’s book is over two decades old, but is still considered a definitive examination of higher education. No wonder. Bloom touches every base, a few being values, the academic disciplines and academia’s “emphasis on feeling rather than thinking.” His purpose is to describe how colleges are treating these matters and how that treatment is shaping students. Bloom fearlessly takes on music, asserting that much modern day music is responsible for the “impoverished souls of today’s students.”

Interestingly enough, he argues that music should be one of the centerpieces of education. Bloom believes that music shapes the character of children and youth. Like the ancient Greek philosopher Plato, he fears that because music is viewed as recreation, it can easily be considered inconsequential and harmless.

But harmless it isn’t. Who would deny that music can soothe, but can also incite and cast off restraint? Like literature, movies and every other art form, it can inspire or it can debase. Bloom dwells on music’s power to debase, arguing much of what youths listen to is vulgar and primitive. No moralist, he is less concerned with lyrics than he is the music itself, or the beat.

Of course, the beat! Even in ancient schooling, it was understood musicality in general and cadence and rhythm in particular were useful tools for learning. In modern schooling it is the same: what we learn as children becomes more indelible when set to rhyme or music.

Two venues in which music particularly thrives and influences us are church and school. Anyone who has attended an evangelical church lately knows that rock rhythms are well established in evangelical Christianity. The so-called music wars are over and rock rhythms won. Hymnody lost and so did harmony (or “parts”: soprano, alto, tenor, bass), once considered the very soul of music and the source of music’s beauty.

Defenders of “contemporary music,” the rock-oriented sound in churches, contend that new wine cannot stay in old wineskins, meaning the Christian message cannot be contained in any one particular form — such as hymns — and will of itself burst out. This is a true, compelling argument. However, if the new wineskin has holes, it is flawed and questioning it is neither unreasonable nor heretical.

For instance, much of today’s church music is commercially inspired — composed and promoted by professionals. This doesn’t make it evil, but it’s still hard to conceive of Martin Luther, Charles Wesley or John Newton hawking the hymns they have penned or touring and getting rich on them.

It’s equally hard to conceive of any contemporary Christian song with the words “Yeah, yeah” lasting as long as Luther’s “A Mighty Fortress,” Wesley’s “Oh, For a Thousand Tongues” and Newton’s “Amazing Grace.”

Because of rock rhythms, worship is no longer a needed respite from the previous week’s noise, but a continuation of it; no longer a time for “the still, small voice,” but an absolute drowning of it. Its cul-de-sac repetitiveness is numbing.

The biggest hole in the new wineskin, however, is that it is simply youth music. Even the Beatles’ Paul McCartney, who has recently dipped into classical music, remarked: “We can’t be teenagers forever.”

As for schools, they checked out from anything classical years ago, except for what school band members and choral groups might get. Schools have also caved in to teen culture in tolerating the ear-splitting volume of today’s music. Complain at a mid-winter basketball game in a tight filled gymnasium, and all you’ll get is “It’s for the kids; it pumps them up.”

Reasonable assimilation of the old and new can be good, but leaders of youth need to learn that youths need and actually desire something transcendent. For 20 or so years adults have yielded to the tyranny of the present, being all too willing to surrender to youthful tastes instead of cultivating them. In effect, we are teaching youth to be disdainful of anything older than last week, particularly musical compositions.

Essayist Thomas Carlyle once wrote, “Let me have the nation’s music, and I care not who makes the laws.” Carlyle, like Bloom and Plato, understood music’s power. Would that more of us moderns could do the same.

Roger Hines is a retired high school English teacher in Kennesaw.
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May 18, 2014
Most excellent and esteemed Roger Hines, please do not misunderstand me, for I am exceedingly sympathetic to your words and thoughts, as both classic literature and classical music were emphasized by my very conservative parents during my upbringing. However, I must - however slightly - protest that your arguments are ethnocentric, particularly Eurocentric. The reason is that many forms of music worldwide, particularly African and especially Asian music, lack what can be considered harmony, cadence and many other things associated with western musical forms such as classical music and the hymnody. Moreover, even in the west, "western music" is rather new ... only a few hundred centuries old. Further still, it is interesting that you pit contemporary evangelical Protestants over against the likes of Luther and Newton, for the doctrines of the Protestant Reformation concerning music and worship are that only hymns, sung by the congregation while standing and without musical accompaniment of any sort and based on the meter and format of the Old Testament psalms and New Testament doxologies, was permissible. Most fundamentalist churches still adhere to this doctrine, and indeed the great majority of the classic hymns that you pit against contemporary Christian music would not pass muster. (Further, allow me to state that this "debate" only exists in majority churches, and has never been anywhere near as prominent in black, Hispanic and Asian churches, where what can be called contemporary music has always been embraced. The same is also true, interestingly enough, about many - though certainly not all - churches favored by working class and lower income whites.)

That being said, my protest must remain mild, because the content of popular music - as well as music most often played in our schools - these days is most certainly not traditional Asian, African, or even pre-harmonic western music, but rather rock, rap, dance and other culturally debasing forms. Moreover, church angle is relevant because it chooses to follow the popular lowering of standards of propriety rather than adhering to its own, which is in violation of the Reformation principle of sola scriptura. My point would be stronger if classical western music had been replaced in our schools and churches with aharmonic music from other cultures that provide some sort of redeeming value. But since it is only high culture western music being replaced with debased culture western music “bodily contact, the sensual grunts, and the premature ecstasy" of rock, R&B, dance (and also country and bluegrass if truth must be told) then what you wrote was indeed true. I just wished to protest a tiny bit in order to get you to broaden your perspective a bit. I wish that Bloom would do the same.

Roger Hines
May 19, 2014
My goodness, Moliere, this is so interesting, but why not use your real name? Yes, I am Euro-centric as are most Americans, and I do understand that African-centric music is different, but African-centric music, as rich as it is, comes from 12 % of the population. I, of course, was talking about "white" music if you must force me to put it that way. Even so, you have educated me and I enjoyed it. I'm glad we can agree that there is some bad stuff (words and sounds)that our youth are wallowing in. As for Bloom, he, a homosexual, died from AIDS sometime back it the late 90's. Hey, your "tiny bit" of protest is most welcome, but it would be more fun - and more real - to know your real name. Keep singing and I will too.
Roger Hines
May 19, 2014
Moliere,forgive me. I am slow of mind. I also meant to say that I don't believe there is any such thing as "pre-harmonic" (your term). Anything as beautiful as musical harmony: beautiful notes sung by two or more people (soprano/alto, etc.) is straight from the mind and heart of God and has always been with us. Do you think the straight, one-part melody of contemporary church music is as beautiful as ... a choir, an ensemble, or just a duet? Just wondering.
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