This is another post in our occasional series considering what it means for us to acknowledge Christ as Lord over our different academic disciplines. Briefly put, my own scholarly activity consists of listening to pieces of recent music; trying to understand how it works and its connection to the rest of the musical world; and using my findings to help others engage with the music. Like any discipline, musicology has its own ideological tensions, which any new scholar is expected to learn to navigate. It’s in dealing with some of these tensions that I’ve found it especially helpful to remember Jesus’s lordship over my study. Today I’m going to focus on one tension that’s been central to my own work, which has to do with the attempt to avoid reductionism in discussing musical experience.
The danger of reducing reality to one of its aspects is a central theme in reformational philosophy (it’s cropped up a few times before in this blog; see for example ). In the field of musicology this danger comes through particularly in the way that scholars discuss the aesthetic aspect of reality. Some (particularly older) musicological scholarship can tend focus on music as a purely aesthetic phenomenon – writing about works as if they were perfect Platonic forms, accessible to anyone equally regardless of context, independent of their historical or performance situation, and so on. This is seen in the popular idea of the masterpieces of Bach or Beethoven as somehow perfectly manifesting some timeless, inevitable aesthetic law. In reaction against this approach, much late-twentieth-century musicology has gone in the opposite direction, attempting to dispense with the idea of the aesthetic as a distinct category of experience. Instead, it reduces musical works to other dimensions: the socio-cultural circumstances of their composition, or particular philosophical or linguistic elements which are seen as standing behind them. Discussion of ‘the music itself’ is seen as a sleight-of-hand to avoid talking about the ‘real’ contextual questions music raises.
What difference does Christ’s Lordship make here? When I affirm that He created all facets of our experience, it puts these other approaches in their right perspective. The first is a kind of idolatry, ascribing transcendence to something that is not God. If a work like Bach’s St Matthew Passion seems timeless, it is not because the work itself is immortal or somehow detached from the circumstances of its composition. Bach’s works were written by a human for specific circumstances; they are wonderful, but they are not perfect. The sense of timeless wonder I experience in listening to them arises because God in His grace has created a real, physical world in which such aesthetic sensations are possible, under the right circumstances – in order to inspire wonder and yearning in our hearts for Him, who truly is transcendent and immortal. On the flip side, because these experiences of aesthetic wonder are so central to the value of music, we cannot and should not simply explain them away as merely artefacts of context – that would be to forget that all of creation declares God’s glory.
In response, as a Christian musicologist, I want to value the power of the pieces I study, whilst acknowledging the root of this power in God’s common grace on His creation. As I learn more about each piece I study, and share that with others, my intent is to reveal more about the wonder of God’s creative works.