The Common Good

On Analysis and the Holy

Abstract rendering of bright sound waves.
Abstract rendering of bright sound waves.

What is it that music actually does? What is that thing? I'm not entirely sure.

That music has physical qualities is unquestionable. A certain pitch can shatter glass. Low notes can cause the trunk of the car stopped next to you in traffic to shimmy and shake. Volume hurts our ears. Music, temporally bound, is material.

It affects the world around us. It engages the world around us. Sound waves travel through various substances...with greater or lesser ease depending on the substance, but it does travel. It moves. 

But does it live, move, and have being?

Cosmic Christ – depth of reality. The resurrection of Christ is also of the body…exit wounds and all. So can the music that changes the shape of the world we live in not help us access the God who inhabits the world and heaven at the same time?

So often I read passages like the one above from Rock and Theology (an amazing blog, by the way) and I wonder what the hell we're all going on about. Music does not have agency in any conscious sense. It is substantive, of course, and could be analysed liturgically like any other liturgical object.

The parameters for analysis may differ (not weight but volume or duration, for example), but it can be analysed. But what's really interesting is not so much what music does but what we, through reception and performance, do with it. Thus, the quotation might read, "So can the music [by which we seek to change the shape of the world] we live in not..."

Music is humanly organized sound (John Blacking's definition). It's mediated in countless different ways by virtue of technologies (two sticks struck together, digital media, and Foucault's technologies, etc.). It is not, however, its own creature no matter how powerfully it effects us. What music does to us has more to do with how we are disposed to hear it, to receive it.

Variables such as sonic environments, aesthetics, novelty, familiarity, etc., all have to be considered as we think about "what music does." How we receive music matters. Conscious and unconscious factors abound. 

Eventually I will contextualize all of this in liturgical studies. Music is one particular category of the "sonic symbol." There are others, of course. Sonic symbols or sonic objects are part of our liturgical experience and expression.

Running water, a praise band, a banjo, sanctus bells, and the russling of paper are all within the liturgical soundscape. 

So, then how do we describe the holy in music, the holy with music, the holy of music? In. With. Of. For?

Is music subect to the same sacramental schemata as any other liturgical object or performance?

I want to say yes. I want to stop privileging (?) music...or whatever it is that we do with it.

Is it a powerful object? Yes. I have no question about that. None at all.

It is not, however, beyond our understanding or analysis.

Tripp Hudgins is a doctoral student in liturgical studies (with a particular focus on ethnomusicology) at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, Calif., and associate pastor of First Baptist Church of Palo Alto, Calif. You can read more of his writings on his longtime blog, "Conjectural Navel Gazing; Jesus in Lint Form" at AngloBaptist.orgFollow Tripp on Twitter @AngloBaptist.

Photo credit: cycreation/Shutterstock.

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