Hearing God in Music: A Christian Critique of Semiological Analysis of Music

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Second, analysis of the ordered structure of the music itself, what Nattiez calls the neutral level, allows the Christian to celebrate artistic beauty as a crafted rendition of divine order.  Music here acts as a Peircean icon, suggesting divine beauty by analogy while partaking of its character.  Contrapuntal structure in a Beethoven symphony, for instance, harmonic progressions in a Bach chorale, and textural delineations in a Beatles song all testify to the ontological primacy of order over disorder in the created world, in turn testifying to the wisdom of the Creator.  In Tolkien’s words, “If [the sub-creator] indeed achieves a quality that can fairly be described by the dictionary definition: ‘inner consistency of reality,’ it is difficult to conceive how this can be, if the work does not in some way partake of reality.  The peculiar quality of the ‘joy’ in successful Fantasy [or musical composition!] can thus be explained as a sudden glimpse of the underlying reality or truth.”23 In addition, while virtually all contemporary analysis of the piece itself concentrates on this structure, the Christian should not ignore the material arranged by the structure: the natural acoustic material that God gives the composer to work with.  When a final harmony rings sweetly in the rafters of a vaulted cathedral ceiling, it works because a wise Creator made it to work.  We indeed hear God in this situation because we hear the effects of his creative labor.

The last example leads us to the third pairing of terms from these threefold systems.  At Nattiez’s esthesic level, the view of music as perceived experience, the Christian may explore the interplay of cognition, acoustics, and physiology, all parts of the creation that point to God by what Peirce would call an indexical mode of signification: any consideration of natural phenomena raises questions of causality, and the Christian recognizes God as the ultimate Cause.  Whereas the first note of Mahler’s first symphony, for instance, can simply be declared a structural dominant, recognition of its ambiguity as first perceived by a listening agent places the moment in a context that more fully recognizes the integral nature of creation.  The note is not just a note; it is a note heard by a person who does not know its ultimate significance and yet awaits attentively to discover the truth.  We do not know what to make of the note at first because we are finite beings, made to live in time.  But we want to know, because it is the glory of kings to search a thing out (Prov. 25:2).  When we think this way, we hear God because our thoughts move not in a forbidding world of arbitrary, meaningless mental phenomena but a rich, palpable world in which every musical sound lives at the nexus of God’s laws of physics and receptive minds made in the image of their Creator.

The field of semiotics presents the Christian scholar with a mixed bag of promises and pitfalls.  On the one hand, it addresses important issues: language, meaning, society, the nature of the self, communication, and art.  On the other hand some of its assumptions have led certain scholars to the denial of truth, the denial of the self, and the denial of God, all ends which the Christian must clearly guard against.

Jacques Lacan speaks of the dominance of the signifier, in his words “the incessant sliding of the signified under the signifier,” with the result that all signs signify nothing.24 The wise bard spoke of a tale told by an idiot signifying nothing, but this tale is told by post-structuralists with academic posts and references to their works in thousands of intellectual journals.  Scripture can certainly accommodate the tale if told to explain our intellectual and linguistic limitations.  We are told after all that God confused our language at Babel.  (Ps. 139:6; Eccles. 3:11; Is. 45:15; Gen. 11:9; etc.)  But when we are told that reality itself, including any real God, is shaped by our language, the Christian must show extreme caution.

Yet Christians should embrace truth no matter what the source.  In Augustine’s words, “Let every good and true Christian understand that wherever truth may be found, it belongs to his Master.”25 We are called to take captive every thought that is raised against Christ, but when confronted by a body of ideas that is only partially true, instead of cowering in fear or railing against blasphemy, let us follow the example of Paul on Mars Hill, commending the benighted for the glimmer of light they do enjoy, and then simply declaring the name of the unknown God.