Don’t Listen To Music | Emotional Sound-spaces | (alt)Worship

Baez DylanHad a great time chatting to Barry Taylor yesterday – who’s over in the UK ‘writing a film score’ (yeah right Barry – we believe you 😉

We got on to talking music. I’d recently heard John Bell talk about protest music, and, harking back to the good old days of Dylan and Joan Baez, he complained that there wasn’t really any good protest music around these days. I took him to task on this afterwards, and challenged him to think again.

Barry is in an excellent position to talk on this, and he talked about his theory that ‘no one listens to music any more’. The basic idea is that music creates an emotional space, out of which actions and thoughts are born. As he said, no one really knows what Thom Yorke is singing about, but, regardless of the words, the emotion of the music resonates with strong messages of protest. According to Barry, most bands begin by writing the music, and the words come after. So perhaps the message of the music is located somewhere else than the lyric.

I like this idea for a number of reasons. Firstly, I think it affirms that, while there is less ‘obvious’ protest music, there is still a lot of music that is there to challenge, if we let ourselves encounter fully the emotional spaces the music creates. Ironically, the folk/protest movement of Dylan’s hey-day could be seen as a failure. While the shallow, glitzy rock-fest of Live Aid was, in many ways, an enormous success.

Secondly, I think this has something to offer in the debate on Christian music. Worship is an emotional space. We need to affirm that, and need to realize that we don’t need obvious lyrics to make music ‘Christian.’ Moreover, where obvious lyrics are put in, they actually tend to detract from the emotional space, making the music too fixed and preachy… And, personally, leaving me cold. Connectedly, I think this is why ambient music has really been embraced by the alt.worship community. It’s often been a criticism that it’s ‘not really worship’ because the words aren’t there. But that is missing the point, and the key truth that alt.worship seemed to pick up on was precisely that it was the emotional space that music created that was the space within which worship was offered.

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20 responses to “Don’t Listen To Music | Emotional Sound-spaces | (alt)Worship”

  1. Kester, thanks for this – a really thoughtful and provocative post. As a relatively long-time lurker on this blog, it’s been great to read your posts and get a sense of some of your thinking. This post’s making connections in my head about stuff that I’ve been thinking out loud about lately – namely about guitar-led singing as church worship. I’ll think on it, and maybe post something here/ at the Sanctus1 blog later. Thanks though…

  2. Dana Ames

    Love the picture- and it reminds me again how old I am (which is ok, but strange to me…)
    I think you’re on to something. Are you saying that even having words makes worship music fixed and preachy? I can see how in the high church tradition hymns and responsories would be rather theologically -driven and didactic, and I certainly have sung my share of preachy (though mostly anti-intellectual and quite emotive) low church hymns.
    Back in the day (age definitely showing now!), when guitar-driven worship songs were first introduced, there was very much a sense of being able to sing about things we actually *cared* about, and the words factored into that, making it explicit. Perhaps that was intellectually driven too, given the values of the time.
    I appreciate your thoughts. Helps me see also why techno/ambient has been so huge in the club culture over your way.

  3. I think you were right to challenge John on that point (I tend to smile away his reactionary statements these days, having heard them so often I’ve got cosy with them, which isn’t good). I’d like to know the illustrations you used to counter his argument, because while there is a lot in this suggestive idea that music creates an emotional space out of which actions and thoughts are born, I don’t know if that is sufficient to support an assertion that Radiohead = protest music.
    I think parallels may be drawn between Dylan and Yorke because, in very different styles, they are both poets – even at the peak of his ‘protest’ years (nb, he never accepted that tag) no one really knew what Dylan was singing about either. Dylan’s and Yorke’s lyrics are suggestive, encouraging listeners to intuit their meaning. So I believe it is still about the lyric, protest music. Dylan is essentially a storyteller, Yorke a postmodern cut-and-paste artist, but the lyrics are central to their art.
    The difference is that Dylan was firmly in the Woody Guthrie tradition of explicit protest – clearly driven by particular issues around poverty, war and land use from a socialist perspective. Listeners can intuit specific political responses from the narratives which Guthrie and Dylan sang. Yorke… his suggestive style doesn’t really let on where he’s coming from. And his lyrics thus cannot empower his listeners in the same way, I don’t think. Radiohead fans this summer (myself included) will emerge from their concerts hopefully feeling emotionally wired by their sound, but I don’t anticipate we’ll have much idea about what use to put those emotions, politically.

  4. “Are you saying that even having words makes worship music fixed and preachy?”
    Yes, I think so. But these are all still fluid thoughts. And nice thoughts too John. (Good to see the Roon has benefited from your prayers 😉
    What I like about the emotional space idea of protest is precisely that its *not* rooted into one particular political statement. What it does is energise the local and particular situations people might be in. If we go to see the ‘head (for example – and I’m not wanting just to focus on them) we might not have much idea what use to put those emotions to… but that’s our problem, not theirs. For them to tell us what the agenda is is to lie down and abdicate to the big up-front leaders again.
    You’re right. Perhaps Yorke’s lyrics cannot empower in the same way. But perhaps that’s a good thing. Perhaps we don’t need empowering in that way, but rather energising to get involved in whatever we’re doing locally.

  5. thanks for the thoughts. I supppose “subversive” would be another way of saying “less obvious” – but that would make things obvious again.
    And speaking of York: it should be interesting to see whether his new solo-effort includes any tracks which might resonate with those searching for the voice-of-discontent in popular music these days…
    Cheers, and thanks for the post.

  6. The other line of thought, on worship music, is interesting too. I can identify with people’s appreciation of ambient sounds as a positive replacement for preachiness, in worship. But in my experience most ‘alternative’ worship also features words (written, often projected, or spoken over instrumental music). Not preachy words but often directive, guiding people’s use of the ’emotional space’ on offer. I think that’s because whilst people are looking for space and silence they’re also in need of substance. At some level that must involve language. But – creative, open, generative language: that’s perhaps the key.
    (PS Please don’t mess with my emotional space by joking about Rooney. Even two years on after his betrayal it’s still too painful to see him in a red shirt…)

  7. “I think that’s because whilst people are looking for space and silence they’re also in need of substance. At some level that must involve language. But – creative, open, generative language.”
    Spot on John.
    One of the ways we used to describe what we did at Vaux was as ‘worship architects’. Very pretentious, but the idea was that an architect designs spaces within which people live and move… But while the space offers some ‘open, generative’ suggestion about how one might use the space, it is free for the user to do with what they like.
    The question is how to offer substance without it being prescriptive. And I think this draws us back to ideas of both gift and language. Essentially, I think what we need to aim for is Jesus’ ‘parabolic’ (lovely rich word, that!) language: offered as a gift rich with meaning and substance, but in a way didn’t prescribe how people dealt with it.
    (And you have to admit, Wayne looks good in Red)

  8. “We might not have much idea what use to put those emotions to… but that’s our problem, not theirs. For them to tell us what the agenda is is to lie down and abdicate to the big up-front leaders again.”
    Isn’t there still an element of follow-the-band here though? If you like any band’s music (regardless of whether you think the lyrics ‘mean’ anything) then you’ll look at their site, read about them, see who influenced them musically/ politically/ etc, and then pick up passions/ campaigns/ etc from them (eg U2/ Amnesty and Radiohead/ Friends of the Earth).

  9. The whole myspace music is the protest these days. It’s the freedom to make the music without having to be a Thom Yorke or whoever that has the power to lead the pack.
    Is a song that protests also need power?
    I guess it depends on who grabs ahold of it.
    Maybe protest songs are underground. The kind we’re remembering of are shared now by popular culture.

  10. damnflandrz

    “Music is the pursuit of happiness”
    – Disposable Heroes.

  11. Great post thank you. What about the role of lyrics in worship before modern music? Haven’t words been a normal part of Christian worship in most forms since it began?

  12. damnflandrz

    Erm…didn’t Davey boy play his harp to calm old King Saul?
    Don’t the salms babble about raising all sorts of instruments to the Lard?
    Don’t books like Daniel and Revelation tell of creatures playing instruments in worship (not always accompanied by singinginging)?
    I wonder what came first, the Music or the Lyric? Does a Caveman bashing a Brontos head in with the thigh bone of a T-Rex count as percussion?
    And yes, Myspace is very helpful for spreading music. Thanks to me site there I’ve gotten 4 gigs so far and a wide number of requests for my stuff (not that it’s any good,you understand, but it is “protesty”)

  13. Music first. It inspired the lyric. Which is why so much of it now is about face: write the sermon, then put G/D/C to it.
    And the difference with hymns? I think many hymns made general statements, whereas so many ‘choruses’ make personal ones. And it’s weird singing personal stuff in a group setting.

  14. “music first”- a bit of a sweeping statement? but i guess youre allowed to do that!
    what about poems which are then put to music? or people that write lyrics with a purpose/statement on their mind and then put music to them.
    i tend to just write music and stop there, thats the most fulfilling way for me to express something, its more free and expressionate than words which i find are too restrictive…… and im c##p at writing lyrics anyway!!

  15. james787

    Hi everyone, this is my first post so quite exciting really!
    I think that the alt.worship scene is really encouraging. This is because the lack of words means that you are able to input your own feelings into the music. I think this is especially important if you aren’t feeling as ‘on fire’ ,or whatever, for god as the vast majority of worship songs suggest that you should be.
    On an entirely personal level, i play guitar for my church’s worhip band, and I am absolutely sick to the back teeth of playing D/A/G….it spells ‘dag’ for a reason.

  16. It’s odd really. Dylan wasn’t a protest singer, wasn’t particularly political, wasn’t particularly topical. Incredibly eclectic, he did have a few songs that became anthems of the protest movement of the 60s [blowin in the wind, masters of war]. Mostly he was a poet. And the stuff just came out of him because it needed to, not because he had a goal in mind. His lyrics were often enigmatic [eg When the ship comes in]. One of the problems with so-called Christian music is that it has no enigma, no mystery, no poetry. It’s like a Hallmark greeting card. Great historical hymns [eg. Guide me O Thou great Jehovah, I feel the winds] had some mystery, at least a bit of enigma. Maybe the draw to the ambient is in part because there’s so little lyrically that has any sense of mystery. Martyn Joseph once talked about earlier times, when he was involved with Christian music, and people who would introduce a song with “The Lord gave me this song . . .” and said he always understood why the Lord would want to give that one away…..

  17. “One of the problems with so-called Christian music is that it has no enigma, no mystery, no poetry.”
    Quite right Bill. Totally agree with that. And the ‘so-called’ is important. Because I think it’s very problematic to call one piece of music ‘Christian’ and one not.
    Imagine a Christian musician/songwriter. Is every part of their output ‘christian’, or just a certain part of it? And if we substituted musician for… cutlery maker, do they make ‘christian’ cutlery?
    The mystery element – the soul, the spirit – of music is ‘other’. It comes from elsewhere. And we shouldn’t pretend that we have some kind of monopoly on the source. Nor that the same people will resonate with the same things. Arvo Pärt’s music is profound and godly to me. And boring nonsense to some of my friends.

  18. damnflandrz

    Am I being dim here? Did I mention AvroPart, or was that a coincidence? The dude rocks,love his music that sounds like StarTrek fight-to-the-death-in-a-circle-in-the-sand routine.

  19. Thanks to Barry for mailing me about this article in the LA Times yesterday. Well worth a read on the topic.
    “When seeking anthems for a new political age, should those critical of the Bush administration be turning toward a Dirty South rapper mad at the cops for disturbing his cruising game or a belly-bared dance music queen who slips a line about immigrant rights into a nightclub seduction? Or does today’s political climate demand voices raised with an urgency that can be inspired only by old-fashioned protest music?”

  20. The entire stream of this blog and comments is truly fascinating. Not only the specifics of responses, but the variety of thoughts/ideas/feelings it generated.
    My two cents, which is about what any opinion is worth, going roughly backwards in response. Historically, music first. Nope, while I am probably older than many on this post, I really wasn’t there for the “first music” some 15000 years ago. More to the point though, great composers write music with text in mind, assuming text is of course to be included. To write music and then try to add text is “putting the ox before the cart.”
    Lyrics getting in the way of worship? Sure, just like many sermons or prayers may do. And I would add just like much of the music. I agree that most texts passed off as “Christian” are far too preachy. The language used in worship has been co-opted by the literalists and concrete thinkers. (you know, like complaining that some music isn’t ‘Christian’ because it didn’t say Jesus enough times) But again, historically, this isn’t a new thought. Why do you think so much ‘classical’ instrumental music exists? A very old description of this debate is absolute vs programmatic music.
    Of course music creates an emotional space. That is blatantly evident. The question to me that this really raises is “what is the context for the music (ie where is it being performed, to who, etc), did the composer have an idea of ’emotional space,’ and does the performer even know A. any of the above, and B. know they are bringing their own ’emotional space’ into the equation. Dylan knew what he was talking about, and was the performer, but he couldn’t know what his music would say beyond the immediate time of writing/performing.