Thesis Statement: In the last 50 years, the most culturally appreciated and consumed music in America has become worse, measured by the rubric of skill, complexity, and harmony, and Christians should resist this ungodly trend.
- Scripture–Evidence for skill, complexity, and harmony as a desirable attribute of musical expression
- Science–Empirical evidence of the decline of popular music
- Decrease in Timbral Variety
- Compression (Loudness)
- The Culture Determines What Music is Valued
- How Shall We Then Listen?
“They don’t make them like they used to.” This stereotypical saying, usually uttered by those born in an earlier generation about the current generation’s music is a well worn cliche, but could there actually be something to it? Has music really, objectively, gotten worse over the last half century, or is this the bemoaning of the old infected with the disease of “rosy retrospection”–always believing that the past was better than it actually was?
Most Christians will readily agree that music has objectively gotten worse–but then point to the sexually charged lyrics and profanity in today’s music as evidence. That is certainly true, though it is beyond the scope and purpose of this paper to discuss. The goal of this paper will be to argue that leaving aside the content, it is the form of music that has more subtly but also just as truly degraded over time and is just as ungodly as the corrupt lyrics. If we define beauty according to biblical standards, then it can be convincingly shown that the sounds of music have become worse, and because of this, Christians should seek to patronize better music than what is popular today, in addition to avoiding the “corrupting speech.” We will specifically look at popular music in America from the latter half of the 20th century to the 2010’s, though appeals/comparisons to the great classical music of the past will be made.
Scripture sets the standard for what we should consider “good” in anything. Thus, before we seek to prove inductively/scientifically that music has gotten worse, we must first establish what “worse” or “better” means according to Scripture and in the context of art and music. Only then will we look at the scientific evidence that merely confirms what scripture establishes. Scripture sets the template for “good” and we will show that today’s music has strayed from that template of good art, even in a short span of 50 or so years.
First, we will look at some scripture passages that pertain to what makes something (in this case music) “good” or “beautiful.”
The first expression of “goodness” in art, that is, an aspect of culture that is particularly designed to showcase the beauty of the creation-is skill. The Oxford Dictionary defines skill as: “The ability to do something well; expertise.” (Oxford Dictionaries, English, 2018) and the Bible clearly praises those who are skilled in their fields. For instance, throughout the book of Exodus, we see the English word “skill” repeated many times in relation to the building of the tabernacle. For example, in Exodus 26: “Moreover, you shall make the tabernacle with ten curtains of fine twined linen and blue and purple and scarlet yarns; you shall make them with cherubim skillfully worked into them.” (Exodus 26:1, ESV). We see this in reference to the workers Bezalel and Oholiab in Exodus 35 and 36. They were “filled…with the Spirit of God, with skill, with intelligence, with knowledge, and with all craftsmanship, to devise artistic designs…” (Exodus 35:31-32a). Clearly, to be skilled at something is better than to not be skilled at something. This is intuitive, but also explicitly biblical. The connection between the blessing of the Holy Spirit and the gift of skillfulness is there as well. Edward Gene Veith, who wrote the seminal State of the Arts, in discussing Bezalel, had this to say:
Bezalel’s gifts provide simple criteria for evaluating a work art: Does this work show ability? intelligence? knowledge? craftsmanship?…By these standards, a sculpture by Michelangelo or a painting by one of the Dutch Masters clearly measures up…Duchamp’s Bicycle Wheel, which is simply a bicycle wheel displayed as a sculpture, shows no particular talent on the part of the artist… (Page 113).
The second aspect of “goodness” in art is complexity. The Oxford Dictionary defines complexity as: “The state or quality of being intricate or complicated.” (Oxford Dictionaries, English, 2018.) This is closely related to skill, but is more implicit in Scripture. To make something that is complex usually requires more skill than to make something simple. For instance, anyone can draw a stick person (low skill, low complexity) but only very talented artists can paint an almost exact replica of a person on canvas (high skill, high complexity). This is intuitive as well, but is obvious when one considers God’s creation. Space does not permit an exhaustive detailing of the staggering complexity of the human body, the masterpiece of creation, but to simply name a few: Human DNA, which basically is the language of all biology; the brain, composed of billions of nerve cells more complex than any computer; the eye. In particular, the human brain is composed of one hundred billion neurons, which are all interconnected to each other, forming almost infinite connections that scientists will probably never be able to map. (Daniel J. Levitin, This is Your Brain on Music, 89-90) In addition to the human body, the universe and its workings are all extremely precisely ordered and full of moving parts. God created the world and everything in it (Genesis 1:1) and just as skill is related to complexity, so is another aspect of goodness/beauty in art: Harmony.
The Oxford dictionary defines harmony as: The quality of forming a pleasing and consistent whole.” (Oxford Dictionaries, English, 2018.) Harmony is the skill in shaping together something complex towards some sort of purpose. Unguided complexity doesn’t mean much. The example of the human body comes to mind again: All of the billions of brain cells work in harmony with each other to produce and run the brain, and this is due to the skill of the Creator. We also see harmony exemplified in the first epistle to the Corinthians where Paul talks about the individual members of Christ working together and constituting one body of Christ:
For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit…God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, yet one body. (12:12-20)
“Though many, are one body.” All Christians, with all their varied gifts and personalities, are called to come together and use those gifts to build up the one body of Christ. This example also leads to the next one: The Trinity. The Trinity is why this example of the one and the many applied to the body of Christ works, and perhaps the Trinity was in Paul’s mind when he wrote it. God is one (Deuteronomy 6:4) in three persons: (1 Peter 1:1-2) The analogy is not perfect (Trinitarian analogies never are!) But we can see the complexity (of three) harmonized into one.
So far we have seen examples of skill/talent as a necessary skill for an artist (Bezalel), complexity being a worthy aspect of a creator (God’s creation), and harmony being a trait of the Trinity and also a worthy goal for all of the body of Christ. It then can follow that in music, it is generally better if it is complex, harmonized, and created by someone talented/skilled.
Having established the general parameters of desirable music according to scripture, we will now look into the second part of our thesis-the empirical part-that popular music being produced today strays from these scriptural principles.
The first item of evidence is intuitive. If one simply peruses the Billboard top 100 charts, which track the best-selling songs in a year according to radio plays, album sales, and later digital sales, one can discern a noticeable decline in musical quality from the 1960’s to the 2000’s, though this is only a general trend. For instance, the number one single in 1960 was the Percy Faith cover of “Theme from a Summer Place”, which was an entirely instrumental song composed by…an orchestra. It sounded like classical music (it was Easy Listening) and it set a record by reigning as the top song on the billboard 100 for nine consecutive weeks. The record would not be broken until 1977. (Billboard, 2018.) Comparatively, 50 years later, the top song of the year by the same reckoning was “Tik Tok” by the artist “Ke$ha” (That wasn’t a typo). It was a pretty basic pop song consisting of quite simple lyrics about partying and getting drunk, and a few instruments (keyboard and synthesizers). It is the epitome of the 2000’s pop trends. Again, ignore the degenerate lyrics for a second and what they intone about current culture, just focus on the music. Its pretty simple stuff. This example may be cherry-picking, but it could be done with most popular songs from the 60’s and 70’s and then comparing them to popular songs from the 2000’s and 2010’s. At the very least, it illustrates a trend that some studies have confirmed empirically, and to this we now turn.
In 2012, in a landmark study published by the Spanish National Research Council, researchers discovered that over the past 50 or so years, popular songs have become more homogeneous, simple, and loud. Joan Serra, the chief researcher/writer of the study, explains the qualities that she measured:
Loudness basically correlates with our perception of sound amplitude or volume (notice that we refer to the intrinsic loudness of a recording, not the loudness a listener could manipulate). Pitch roughly corresponds to the harmonic content of the piece, including its chords, melody, and tonal arrangements. Timbre accounts for the sound color, texture, or tone quality, and can be essentially associated with instrument types, recording techniques, and some expressive performance resources. (Serra et al., 2012, pg. 2)
Using a databank of almost 500,000 distinct recordings from 1955 to 2010, they found that:
Many of these patterns and metrics remain consistently stable for a period of more than 50 years, which points towards a great degree of conventionalism in the creation and production of this type of music. Yet, we find three important trends in the evolution of musical discourse: the restriction of pitch sequences (with metrics showing less variety in pitch progressions), the homogenization of the timbral palette (with frequent timbres becoming more frequent), and growing average loudness levels (threatening a dynamic richness that has been conserved until today) (Pg. 3)
Basically, if we apply the principles of what makes music good according to Scripture, (skill, complexity, variety, harmony) then we see that these very qualities have deteriorated in popular music in the past 50 years. Forget about modern music compared to Mozart, in which would be an even more exaggerated difference, just consider 60’s music to 00’s music. When someone records a track to be “louder” they basically compress the track so that it is more “punchy” and plays at the top of its level most of the time. What is lost is the variations/complexities in the track itself. Restriction in pitch basically means that the songs are more homogenized–they sound more similar to one another/there is less variation within the song itself, and timbre is basically the richness of a musical track, and the distinctiveness of the various instruments. One writer, analyzing this study for The Guardian, noted that one contributing factor to shrinking timbral variety could be that since the popularity of FM synthesizers in the 1980’s music engineers and producers have been able to replicate musical instruments on a computer. (Michaels, 2012) Whole symphonies can be replicated using computer software, and then it can be superimposed onto a track. But as Daniel J. Levitin, the former producer and current neuroscientist at McGill University explains: “…Merely copying the overtone profile, while it can create a sound reminiscent of the actual instrument, yields a rather pale copy.” (This is Your Brain on Music, Pg. 49). This is evidence for a decline in musical talent in the music industry, since many pop songs can now be created solely using computer software. The rise of Hip Hop, Electronic, EDM, and Trance music are evidence of this instrument-free musical trend.
In addition to the quality and arrangement of the sound, there is also the decline of the structure of the lyrics, which other studies have suggested to have both become more simple and more homogenized over the years. An astounding number of chart-topping pop singles are written by just two people (Max Martin and “Dr. Luke”), but this is beyond the scope of this paper. Suffice it to say, music has gotten worse over the years. The questions for the Christian remains: What caused this trend? How can I honor God in the music I listen to?
By way of application–why does any of this matter? Does this mean that Christians can listen to 70’s music but not 90’s music? Are the Rolling Stones Christ honoring since their music is better than Usher? Does this mean that all old music is good, true, and beautiful, while all new music is bad, false, and ugly? Of course not. There were very simplistic tunes in the 50’s and 60’s and very sexually suggestive lyrics (1951’s “Sixty Minute Man” was not about time). Indeed, the very coining of the term “Rock ’n’ Roll” is sexually suggestive itself (The Hole in Our Soul: The Loss of Beauty and Meaning in American Popular Music, pg. 112) But likewise, there are myriads and myriads of good music being produced today, it’s just not mainstream or popular like better music used to be. The problem is that the music that is listened to, attended, and bought is the music the culture likes and appreciates. The standards in music have not changed, but the culture has. In his influential critique of culture, All God’s Children in Blue Suede Shoes, Ken Myers points out that current popular culture (he was writing in 1989, what he says is doubly true today) appreciates instant gratification and novelty, and this is reflected in what Myers writes are the “The most significant forces shaping popular culture”: Television and Rock ’n’ Roll (pg. xvi). Contemporary popular music today reflects this desire for novelty because music today is mass-produced using computer software that, as we saw earlier, can cheapen the richness of the sound and remove the skill of the musical artist, replacing him with a computer. In order to produce more music, record labels have pumped out musicians and songs that, as we saw earlier, are more homogenous than they used to be, cutting down on variety and complexity.
What should the Christian do? The answer is both simple and complex. The simple answer is: Listen to good music, and by doing so, you glorify God. Of course, “good music” cannot be entirely explained by the features of complexity, or of timbral variety and such. There are many other factors, such as the context of the song to each person’s life, the meaning and emotions evoked in the lyrics, the particular sounds that certain people are attracted to, etc. But exceptions to a rule don’t invalidate the rule, and the general rule is that Christians should seek to buy, attend, and listen to good music, and avoid bad music. Good music glorifies God more than bad music does, all other things being equal, because it more closely reflects his being and character as the skilled, complex, and harmonious (trinitarian) musician that He is. Start listening to Classical music and appreciate its beauty. Pause the pop song you have been listening to (even if the lyrics are fine!!) and play some Beatles. Start small. Trade Kendrick Lamar for The Steve Miller Band, “Ke$ha” for Bach, or The “Weeknd” for “Needtobreathe”, and glorify God.
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