Beauty as something universally recognizable

About to hit the sack and thought I would post this quickly and see what you folks out there think.

I’ve been obsessed with looking up facts about Barber’s Adagio for Strings at various points this weekend (that’s a problem with the iPhone: you can act on such obsessive impulses too easily), and in one of my Google searches came across this old 2007 article at Christianity.com: “The Loss of Beauty.”

While the thought it expresses is not new to me, the instance of the Washington Post experiment is. (Reminds me of different experiment exploring the beauty of math using the proof of the irrationality of two, but that’s a post for another day!)

What are your thoughts, music lovers? While I would not want this to come across as an endorsement of everything you read on Christianity.com (never heard of it before today, I think), I do recommend that you read the article. If you do, let me know what you think.

13 thoughts on “Beauty as something universally recognizable

  1. Unfortunately it’s not true that in music, beauty is universally recognizable – at least not at once. Western classical and Middle Eastern classical musicians mutually regard each other’s music as boring, repetitive and inexpressive – until each learns how the language of the other’s music operates. Then the qualities that make for beauty can be recognized.

    The reason why I started looking hard at Suzanne Haik-Vantoura’s proposed reconstruction of biblical cantillation way back in 1982 is that I realized that we could find a potential touchstone in it for truly universal standards of beauty and expression in music (after all, “the Word of God is the foundation of knowledge”). I found out that many reviewers of the day (1976 and onward) recognized that in her reconstructions the roots of both Western music on the one hand and Near Eastern and Indian music on the other could be tracked. And to my delight, I have found the basic principles therein have given me an aural touchstone which makes it much easier for me to appreciate the good and bad in music from all over the world and from every period known. It helps that I have always perceived music as a language, but surely it can’t be just that capacity that has given me this inexpressible opportunity. It has to be thanks to God’s determination to preserve His “oracles” – including the music created by the Hebrew authors for their own texts – through the Jews despite themselves, if necessary (Romans 3:1-4).

    (Disclaimer: The above argument is not necessarily endorsed by the Living Church of God or by Thoughts En Route. – Johanan Rakkav πŸ˜€ )

  2. This is good and it amazes me. the world at large can walk past ugly, beauty, etc. Not noticing something as beautiful as that.
    The instrument alone would have been something, that must be a thing of beauty. How could they not notice the beautiful
    music. I have read this recently. Not sure of the source. I printed it this time. Music has many functions in our lives as was
    pointed out.
    I have a cd of our church hymnal. I play it softly in the background when I work, I play it as I sleep. Music is good for a multitude
    of different things. One is to sing prasies to our Father. Thanks,

  3. Very interesting and, for me, timely. I guess I agree on some levels, but I think there are some variables such as culture, etc… that perhaps make something beautiful to one person, or group of people, whereas it would not be so great to another….

    For me personally, I have a difficult time with music. Much of the music I grew up with is rotten, and it is easy to tell by simply listening to the lyrics. Yet, other music where the lyrics may not be so bad, or it may not have lyrics at all, may still have a heavy beat and loud guitars, etc… and I really like that sound – a lot. But I always wonder if I’ve been desensitized, or if it really is a relative thing. But if it is a relative thing, how does it stack up to what God thinks is beautiful? How can I know for sure the correct way to apply Phil 4:8, regarding music?

    Even looking at what will be allowed in TW, where does cultural diversity come in, and what kind of lines will be drawn within each culture? Music has been a bit of a challenge for me, to say the least.

    Anyway, thanks for the article – hope you guys are doing well!

    Deano

  4. Teresa

    Thank you for this post, Mr. Smith. In a recent first grade music class that I teach, the primary teacher observed us singing the song “Eensy Weensy Spider”. I use a method of teaching general music that uses the folk music of the nation not only to teach the basics of singing and music but also as an introduction to classical music. The primary teacher thought what we were doing was old fashioned and that the children weren’t connecting well. She offered to play the version she uses with her kindergarten classes. It turned out to be a rap/rock version, which at the time was fun for the majority of the kids and got them moving. I mulled over whether I should stick to my “old fashioned” method, but knew instantly that I should when I heard the kids the next week demonstrating the rap version. There was no singing, but a hoarse yelling along with an aggressive attitude.
    My one other comment about the article refers to the last couple of lines Mr. Craven wrote. I feel that Satan uses and promotes beauty as well as ugliness in his efforts to ensnare humanity. Proof of that being the song “Ave Maria” mentioned in the article. Yes, soaring, gorgeous, gripping music entwined with words that lead one away from truth.

  5. Hey Deano,

    Really we have all been desensitized to the effects of popular music if we’ve immersed ourselves in it and haven’t sought out alternatives. Yet even in the various forms of classical music around the world, not everything is good even in the music as such.

    Again, Mr. Smith can’t specifically endorse the following, but I have a standing assignment to write something about the issue (the article is long overdue) and it’s been a keen interest of mine for many years. The book on this page by Dr. Frank Garlock et al. (especially), and the two by Kimberley Smith, while they have their weaknesses, can be very helpful in answering your questions and others.

    http://www.rakkav.com/biblemusic/pages/interest.htm

    A vital key discussed by Dr. Frank Garlock et al. (which Mr. Wyatt Ciesielka heard me give in an impromptu Spokesman Club speech and which he thinks I need to bring out in written form) is that melody, harmony and rhythm is parallel to spirit, soul and body (attitudes, emotions and desires) – each aspect of music has a direct connection to that part of our personality. Also, consider this syllogism, modified from that of Garlock et al.:

    1. Music is the language of the attitudes, emotions and desires.
    2. Some attitudes, emotions and desires are inappropriate to express.
    3. Therefore, some musical language is inappropriate.

    Consider this also:

    1. When the spirit, soul and body are operating properly and in that order, the person is at peace and in harmony.
    2. Too much emphasis on any one of the three leads to imbalance. So does emphasis out of order. Overemphasis on the body and its rhythms in particular makes the person sick (or captive to lust, or subject to other deleterious effects).
    3. Beware of the neurological phenomenon called “brain switching”, in which we literally “put sweet for bitter and bitter for sweet” – preferring what is actually harmful to us and causes us measurable harm.

    So first of all, music in principle should be dominated by melody, then by harmony (or harmonic progression in melody-only music), and only after that by rhythm. And then there are the specific, clinical effects of constant repetition of (as opposed to accentuation by) the weak-strong beat pattern rather than the strong-weak beat pattern. When three out of four instruments in your average rock band are rhythm instruments and play mostly weak-strong beats, we should ask ourselves what effect the combination is having on us, even apart from the lyrics.

  6. TeapotTempest

    Beauty is a such a wonderful gift of our God. Whether it be the sounds of music, the visual glories of creation, the delightful aromas, flavors and other pleasant experiences that come through our senses, they are, through these physical manifestations, just reflections of the greater magnificence of God and the incredible love He has shown through much planning and painstaking care to detail. Our natural response to things of beauty is just one aspect of this. It’s difficult to imagine what wonders await us in the spiritual realm, but I feel He has provided these things of beauty to give us just a taste of what’s in store for us and to make us “greedy” for more. Bring it on!

  7. totally fascinating comments… but whether we deal with food for the mind and emotions, as music can be, or food for the physical body, I doubt any but the few are going to listen (pun intended).

  8. 13brian

    Good comments, good thoughts. I have always found it rather interesting that ‘rock’ music’s closest similarity is classical music. A rock band and symphony instruments intertwine rather well, as has been proven by numerous performances. I am not saying any of it is bad or good. @ Teresa- good observation on Ave Maria. It is indeed an inviting tune, I find it very similar to the large number of professing Christian ‘pastors’ or ‘ministers’ that use or quote C.S. Lewis as if it were good. It ranks right up there with promoting Harry Potter (proven to be actual witchcraft and actual dark incantations) as something ok, or good for children. Both are so deeply rooted in paganism that one or two quotes that ‘seem’ right or good apparently serve only as tasty bait for our innocent children. The entire story and all characters of Narnia can be taken right out of pagan beliefs, practices and stories. The other should go without saying, of course the same professing ‘Christians’ think it cute to honor demons and observe ‘all hallows eve’.
    Thanks to the authors and researchers for the information here and linked here. Some good food for thought indeed.

  9. Thanks to everyone for their comments, so far. I’ve enjoyed reading them and perhaps more will arrive. Rakkav, I know you’ve thought a lot about this subject, and I appreciate your contributions in this regard. Lindaloolookingahead, I agree: I think our hymnal songs are an under-utilized resource amongst individuals in the Church.

    Deano: I know you’ve thought about this topic a lot, as well! Philippians 4:8 is, indeed, a wonderful tool in making decisions about what we should be willing to listen to–what we should allow to enter our ears. That approach has always helped me, and it continues to do so as I apply it more thoroughly and committedly. 13brian, I’m glad that you’re enjoying the post and comments, though taking “rock” as broadly as it can reasonably mean, I don’t know if I agree about its “closest similarity.” As for Ave Maria, there’s a great point to be made: beautiful music, but content that does not serve the truth — beauty used to serve evil rather than good. I note that your other comments, taken too broadly (more broadly than you mean them, I am sure), would condemn both Mr. Herbert Armstrong for occasionally quoting the observations of Aldous Huxley and the Apostle Paul for quoting pagans Epimenides and Aratus to great effect. Taking their quotes to be promotions and endorsements of the entirety of their sources would be, of course, a mistake. TeapotTempest: Some have said that the existence and recognition of beauty is among the strongest evidences of God’s existence. Kildrum, your observation is very likely true, yet at least those few are listening!

    But, in particular, I appreciate your comment and observation, Teresa. In the two cases you mentioned, the content of the song was essentially the same, but the approach to the music was completely different. And what you noticed in the children was the key — you noticed the fruit that was produced: in their attitudes, emotions, etc. The other teacher just sought out what made the music more interesting, while what you noticed demonstrates the truth that it should not be simply whether or not it is interesting but a matter what fruit is produced. Like the Ave Maria, it may be beautiful or more interesting, but that doesn’t, in itself, make it better. In fact, it might be worse. The fact that you actually saw concrete evidence of the different effects of the music in the children’s behavior is fascinating to me – not surprising, but still fascinating.

    Reflecting on what you’ve stated, it makes me wonder just how much our younger generations miss as desperate teachers strive to be interesting while failing to pass on things of true significance and worth.

    Thanks, again, to everyone for their comments, and I’m glad that you found the topic worth a few moments of your time!

  10. Steve

    It looks like this subject is already paid out, so I’ll (try to) keep my comment brief.

    I’ve always thought of beauty in terms of trees or flowers. What if there existed only one kind of tree or flower? Wouldn’t that be boring? But a field of flowers with different shapes, sizes, and colors? Now, that’s beautiful.

    Or, as an old philosopher once said, “Infinite aesthetic is the interaction of diversity, possible only through universal harmony.” You can apply that on several levels, from art to personality to culture.

    I don’t like music where the same thing gets repeated over and over. Boring! And rap music… I’d ban that and some other stuff the first chance I had. Poison oak!

  11. 13brian, I’m tempted to take the Middle Eastern point of view (just because I can) and say that it’s obvious why rock musicians and Western symphonic orchestras blend so well. Both are loud, bombastic, and tasteless. πŸ˜€ You think I’m kidding? Only partially. Ethnomusicologist Curt Sachs and others have noted that this is exactly how traditional Middle Eastern musicians typically regard Western orchestras. Before the modern age they typically didn’t have huge classical ensembles outside certain temples (Israelite and otherwise).

    I’m a musician and songwriter and a very eclectic listener. And I’m here to tell you all, most two genres of music can work together with equal ease in principle (that is why “world music” and “fusion” exist, for example). Now there are degrees of ease in practice to be sure. Celtic and Jewish folk music are truly renowned for their ability to do exactly that with any other kind of music they encounter – and the millions of albums that get sold by The Chieftains alone are proof of the effectiveness of the blends. Likewise the music of J.S. Bach is incredibly robust; almost nothing this side of rap completely ruins its character in rearrangement.

    From my experience I suggest that those who like rock and classical music equally well are equally in touch with their psychological Light and Shadow. These musics in their pure forms have completely opposite effects on the human spirit, soul and body and blending them is strongly reminiscent of techniques used by certain ancient Greeks in their songwriting. One has to get off the fence sooner or later, though, and most people today are subordinating the impulses behind folk and classical music to the impulse behind rock-driven music, more and more. That means that they’re letting the impulses of the body – pure carnal-mindedness (as opposed to deception of the spirit, as in Gregorian chant and the forms of Ave Maria) – increasingly predominate, then those of the soul, and only afterward those of the spirit.

    It’s possible to subordinate the impulse behind rock to the impulses behind folk and classical, however, with care, and in yet another shameless plug I’d like to present two versions of a song I wrote (MIDI and WMA) that hopefully illustrate that the results can be edifying. For the record, the song is Hey, Christopher Alan and I don’t mind admitting it’s one of my favorite songs of any kind:

    http://www.rakkav.com/earthlight/midis/just_tuned/christopher_alan01_just.mid

    [audio src="http://www.rakkav.com/earthlight/wmas/just_tuned/christopher_alan01_just.wma" /]

    The trick in doing that subordination is “melody, harmony and rhythm, in that order” (just for starters).

  12. Steve

    Interesting comments by Rakkav.

    Western (classical) music is based on the diatonic scale, which has its roots in the Middle East. Rakkav might have alluded to that in his first comment, but I’m not quite sure. At any rate, the development of harmonic triads, major and minor keys, was a Western innovation that made the difference.

    Rock music is similar to classical in the sense that both use the diatonic scale. Rock is founded on the Dorian pentatonic approach to scales, however, and that makes it different (aside from the back beat). A lot of rock songs from the 1965-1975 in fact incorporated modal scales, which is different from the diatonic.

    Blues music , of course, is founded on the interplay of “tonic, subdominant, and dominant,” plus shifts between the minor and major; patterned in either an 8 bar or 12 bar form.

    Lastly, Rakkav is right the impulses of human nature in whatever form. It’s not the piece of clay, but the person molding it.

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