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Sound Theology

by Jeremy Begbie

Jeremy Begbie is associate principal at Ridley Hall, a theological college in Cambridge, England, and a lecturer in theology at the University of Cambridge. This article is excerpted from his book Resounding Truth: Christian Wisdom in the World of Music. Published by Baker Academic. Used by permission of Baker Publishing Group © 2007. All rights reserved. This article appeared in The Christian Century, November 13, 2007, pp. 20-25. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscriptions information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


Being wise in the world of music from a Christian perspective means being aware of music's powers and the way some sound patterns are especially well suited to drawing us into the purposes of God. One of these powers is the way that music can represent tensions and resolutions.

It is seven in the morning. You are deep in a dream. The alarm goes off, and your head explodes. After much desperate fumbling, you manage to get your sleepy hand on the right button. A tension is resolved.

Equilibrium-tension-resolution (ETR) is, of course, one of the most basic psychological patterns governing our lives--from traffic lights on red to lights on green, from sexual arousal to orgasm, from nerves before an interview to the relief of a job offer. In Western tonal music the dynamic of tension and resolution is pervasive. Tensions are set up that demand some kind of release or rest.

One of the most important of these tensions is harmonic tension and resolution, easily demonstrated in a chord pattern in which the first chord is expected to resolve on to the second; things cannot be left hanging on that first chord.

This musical structure, which is to be found in thousands of popular songs (like George Gershwin's "I Got Rhythm"), consists of the statement of a melody in a home key, followed by a move away from that key, and then a return to the melody in the home key. The homecoming is not a simple "back to the beginning." Even if the destination is a note-for-note repetition, it marks the culmination of a kind of sonic journey, so it will be heard as different--as fuller and richer.

Relating this ETR profile to prominent patterns in scripture is not hard: creation-fall-redemption, promised land-exile-return, "orientation-disorientation-reorientation" in the Psalms (as Walter Brueggemann has explained), the journey of the prodigal son to the far country and back again (Luke 15:11-24). The theme of displacement from home and subsequent return has been rehearsed in the literature, drama and music of many cultures not directly affected by the Christian story of salvation. Nevertheless, it seems reasonable to suppose that theological factors have played at least some part in the development of tonal music.

Let us explore three qualities of tonal music that arise from these patterns of tension and resolution and see how suited they are to embodying some of the dynamics of the Christian gospel.

It cannot be rushed: Not only can music not be rushed in the obvious sense--that is, it cannot be rushed through, for it can survive only a relatively limited variation in speed before becoming unintelligible--it also cannot be rushed over, in the sense that it depends intensely on sequences of tension and resolution. Musical resolutions have no power other than that which they possess as the resolutions of tension.

To draw out the resonances between this and the Christian gospel, we might pause to consider Holy Week--Palm Sunday to Easter Sunday--and the way it is celebrated in worship. As the Roman Catholic and Orthodox traditions have known for centuries, and many other churches have discovered too, the only way that this extraordinary narrative will yield its meaning is quite simply if we play the events at their original speed--God's speed, not ours--living in and through the events day by day: the grieving farewells, the betrayal and denial, the shuddering fear in the garden, the stretched-out day of torture and forsakenness, and the daybreak of wonder, color and tomb-bursting newborn life. By refusing to skip over these days, with all their dark shadows and turns, we allow ourselves to be led far more profoundly into the story's sense and power.

Music is remarkably instructive here, because more than any other art form, it teaches us how not to rush over tension, how to find joy and fulfillment through a temporal movement that includes struggles, clashes and fractures. The temptation is to pass over what needs to be passed through.

It invites us to live on many levels: Music is not an art of straight lines. It is never simply a string of ETRs, one after the other, on one level. If it were, we would soon lose interest. Music's ETRs work at many levels simultaneously, and this is one of music's strongest powers, one of the prime ways it gets under our skin and holds us. We see this most clearly if we delve into the world of meter. Meter is the pattern of beats underlying music.

Metrical beats are grouped into bars (or measures). In a waltz there are three beats to a bar. These beats are not of the same strength--as anyone who has tried to dance a waltz will know. The first is strongest, the second is weaker, and the third is weaker still, moving toward what will be the first beat of the next bar. A wave of tension and resolution is set up, repeated bar after bar.

Meter does not operate only at this one level. The successive downbeats of each bar are themselves of a different strength. In many pieces they are grouped in twos or fours--the first is strongest, the last beat of each group the weakest. Together, then, they build up another wave of tension and resolution at a higher level. And the downbeats of that wave are also of a different strength, and they make up another wave and so on. The process continues up, level after level, higher and higher, until the whole piece is covered.

This can be a highly complex process, but this basic multileveled pattern is present in one form or another in virtually all types of Western music, from Bach to Brahms, R. E. M. to Eminem. It will be seen straightaway that music built around these patterns will not (as is so often thought) be linear. Neither is it circular. Indeed, music subverts the common assumption that there are only two types of time: linear and circular. Although directional, musical time is neither linear nor circular, it is multistoried. Making sense of music means perceiving many levels of tension and resolution simultaneously.

Especially important for our purposes is the fact that every downbeat kicks forward a wave on another level. The momentum of the upper waves is dependent on the tensions and resolutions of the lower waves. One level's return is always another's advance. Every return closes and opens, completes and extends, resolves and intensifies. Music holds our attention because as long as the piece is running, we are aware that there is at least one wave at a higher level that is not yet dosed. And so we expect--and usually want--more. In this way, we are pulled forward by the music and pulled in--kept in the story, so to speak. (Try singing "The Star-Spangled Banner" and stopping after the words "through the perilous fight." The musical phrase has ended on a lower level, but there is a sense of incompleteness because many upper waves still have to close.)

Put differently: there is always hope if we live on more than one level. The God of Jewish and Christian faith moves not just in mysterious ways but in mysterious waves. This God invites people to live on more than one level; that is how God keeps them hoping, keeps them in God's story. Frequently in scripture a promise is made, and the first fulfillment that comes, though genuine, fails in some way to match up to expectation. Take the promise of Genesis 12:1-3--the promise to Abraham that he is about to be shown a land, that he will be blessed and be the first of a great nation, and that in time he will be the one through whom all the families of the earth will be blessed. Within Genesis, of course, this only partly transpires. The blessing of the nations, for example, starts, or is foreshadowed, when Jacob brings blessing to Laban, and Joseph to Potiphar, and indeed Jacob to Pharaoh. But all this is very partial. "The theme of the Pentateuch is the partial fulfillment--which implies also the partial nonfulfilment--of the promise to or blessing of the patriarchs" (Daniel Clines).

But does this kill the hope? By no means. The incomplete fulfillments spur on God's people to hope all the more; indeed, the Abrahamic promise of blessing for the nations is picked up elsewhere in the Old Testament. Resolutions at the lower level kick forward higher waves.

In the contemporary postmodern climate, we are frequently encouraged to hive on the lowest level alone--in "flat time"--typically with only little short-term microhopes, one day at a time. We dare not hope for anything too great in the long term; nor, many would say, do we know how to hope for anything in the long term. With the so-called death of the meta-narrative (the big stories that have governed Western culture--for example, Christianity, Marxism, the myth of human progress), we can settle only for microhopes, stretching a lifespan at the most. To be drawn into the waves of God means that our lives are set in the context not of a linear path (of progress, perhaps?), but of a multileveled hope that covers a huge range of timescales. There may be very small waves at work--the little short-term routines of our lives, for example--but we live in the confidence that even these can be taken up in the longer-reaching purposes of God, the wide and vast waves of God's music.

It makes us wait: We can look at one further form of musical tension with strong gospel overtones: delay--when an expected or desired fulfillment is held up, either in whole or in part. The handling of delay is a crucial musical skill. Musicians are adept at setting up expectations that are deliberately deferred through a myriad of devices: diversions, digressions, pauses and so on. Indeed, maintaining the "not yet" of resolution through deferred gratification is generally reckoned to be one of the most important things to be learned by any composer, and among the most critical features of musical structure. For a rock song or a symphony, a ballet score or a ballad, much depends on handling the space between tensions and postponed resolutions in ways that can satisfy the desire for resolution while also being open-ended enough to sustain the expectation of, and desire for, more.

A simple example can be found in a piece learned by every beginner and encased in millions of telephone answering machines--"Für Elise," by Beethoven. On the first page, the composer inserted two extra bars just before the main melody returns--gratification is deferred, with the result that we are pulled into the piece that much more intensely. (This is one reason why the piece is much harder than its sounds, as many a ten-year-old has found out.)

Much more sophisticated is the second movement of Brahms's Second Symphony, where only at the very end are we given the main key chord stably and unambiguously on a strong beat. John Coltrane's A Love Supreme provides another good example. In The Anatomy of Jazz, Leroy Ostransky observes:

What distinguishes superior creative musicians from the mediocre ones of all periods is the manner in which they create resolutions, and to create resolutions it is necessary to set up irresolutions. Poor and mediocre jazzmen often do not understand that the quality of their jazz will depend not on any resolution, however elaborate, but rather on the inherent intricacy of the irresolution.

The theme of delay is, of course, very common in scripture--there is a sense among the writers that things are being in some manner held back, whether the final fulfillment of God's purposes or the closer, short-term fulfillments. "How long, O Lord?" is not just the wail of the psalmist but the howl of God's people over and over again down through the disillusioning years of Israel's history. When will Yahweh put his world to rights? When will this supposedly just God vindicate his people and scatter their enemies? How can we keep hoping in the midst of unresolved dissonance? And even after the climactic resolution in Christ, a new sense of delay is evident, classically expressed in Romans 8: the whole creation "groans" as it awaits fulfillment (v. 23). The meantime demands patience: "If we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience" (v. 25).

Far from being empty or pernicious, however, this in-between time is, Paul and others believe, potentially rich and enlarging. The raising of Jesus has anticipated the final general resurrection, and through the Spirit we have a foretaste of that dazzling future resurrection age here and now (Rom. 8:9-11). This is the same Spirit who is active deep within creation and the church, struggling to bring about in the world what has already been achieved in Christ (Rom. 8:17-30). The Spirit can enlarge us in the very waiting, within and through the apparently circuitous, mysterious and painful process of deferred fulfillment.

Because of its multilevel wave structure, and because there is always a wave reaching forward at a higher level, and there are enough downbeats to remind us of that, music has the power to introduce us to just this kind of enriching meantime and help us understand more deeply what it means to wait on God. This is most evident in silence.

In one of her songs, Alanis Morissette sings about "The conflicts, the craziness and the sound of pretenses / Falling all around all around." Then she challenges us: "Why are you so petrified of silence? Here can you handle this?" And the music suddenly stops.

Why are we so petrified by silence? Presumably because we think nothing happens in silence. Silence is void, emptiness, blank space. But music's metrical waves extend even through silence. We can sense them even when there is no music. This is how pieces of music can include so much silence; the space is not empty, and a skillful composer will know how to make that very clear.

The opening of the theme music of Jaws generates its edge-of-the-seat terror largely through silence. The final bars of Sibelius's Fifth Symphony are, in essence, silence punctuated by six chords, creating a remarkably intense longing for resolution. These silences sound charged because of the memory of what has been and the anticipation of what will be, so we are pulled in and held in. Even in the most numbing of silences, when God's absence seems most deadening, the raising of the crucified Jesus from the dead sends a wave arcing through the silence to resurrection day, and by the Spirit we can catch it and sense it--and the silence can live. That is how countless Christians have managed to endure in the most hopeless of circumstances--in prison, torture, mental illness, acute loss.

In this light, it is disappointing, to say the least, that deferred gratification is so rare in much of today's music for worship--and I include both traditional and contemporary music--and in some respects it is also surprising, given music's astonishing powers to embody the kind of delay that is so basic to authentic Christian faith.

Another feature of most of the music we make and hear is that it mixes sounds; to be more precise, it involves two or more notes sounding simultaneously. This seemingly innocuous phenomenon is in fact one of music's greatest powers, and it is of huge significance from the perspective of Christian faith.

To open this up, we can consider a key difference between aural and visual perception. A painter knows that you cannot have red and yellow on a canvas in the same space and have them visible as red and yellow. Either one color hides the other or (if the paint is wet) they merge into some variety of orange. By the same token, you cannot see an object in two places at the same time. Things in our visual field occupy discrete, bounded locations--spaces with edges. The eye tells us that things cannot be in the same place at the same time.

But things are rather different if we consider the world as perceived by the ear. If I play a note on a piano--say, a middle C--what I hear fills the whole of my heard space. I cannot identify some zone where the heard note is and a zone where it is not. I do not say, "It is here but not there." Unlike the patch of red on a canvas, it is, in a sense, everywhere.

If I play a second note along with the middle C--say, the E above it--that second note also fills the whole of my heard space, the same space as the C. Yet I hear the notes as distinct from each other. The notes interpenetrate, occupy the same heard space, but I can hear them as two notes. (Of course, I can play one note so loud that the other is not heard, but the point here is that it is possible to hear them as different notes in the same aural space.)

Some will object that I am using the word space metaphorically to speak of the experience of hearing, not the "real" space we can see. This, of course, assumes that what we see, or what is observable visually, should wholly determine what real space is--whereas even a casual glance at the development of modem physics shows that much of reality stubbornly defies visualization. But leaving that aside for the moment, we have at least shown that the perception of two notes together makes possible a different conception of space and spaces from that which is typical of, say, two colors together--a different way of thinking about space. Here is a kind of space that is not the space of mutual exclusion but a space that allows for overlapping and interpenetration.

Let us go back to two notes sounding and consider another feature of vibrating strings that we can hear. Suppose I play middle C and open up the string an octave above by silently depressing the appropriate key. The upper C string will vibrate even though it has not been struck. This is because its note is the first overtone of the fundamental lower C. The lower string sets off the upper. And the more the lower string sounds, the more the upper string sounds in its distinctiveness. The strings are not in competition, nor do they simply allow each other room to vibrate. The lower string enhances and brings to life the upper string, freeing it to be itself and compromising neither the integrity of the upper string nor its own.

Moreover, when certain other strings are opened up alongside both these strings, they too will vibrate in sympathy. And with all these combinations of notes, the sounds mix within the one heard space. Music has come to depend massively on the interpenetrating and resonating features of sound, and it exploits them to powerful effect.

Simultaneously sounding notes, and the music arising from them, can witness a form of togetherness in which there is an overlap of spaces out of which comes mutual enrichment and enhancement, and a form of togetherness that can be sensed first and foremost as a gift, not a consequence of individual choices. During a recent visit to South Africa, a number of times I sang the national anthem, "Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrika." Wherever I sang it, it evoked in me an extraordinary sense of togetherness, even though I hardly knew the hymn and often barely knew the people with whom I was singing. Part of the reason for that, no doubt, was that I knew that this song had held thousands together during the fierce decades of apartheid. Part of it was the tremendous welcome I received at most of the assemblies where I sang it. But a large part of it was also its four-part harmony, in which no vocal line predominates over the others (unlike the British national anthem, for example).

Sing this anthem in South Africa and, in keeping with a wide range of African music, it will instantly be sung in harmony. Your voice and all the others fill the same heard space. It is a space not of a hundred separate voices each with their mutually exclusive and bounded place but a space of overlapping sounds, an uncrowded, expansive space without clear edges, where distinct voices mutually establish and enhance one another.

Why was solidarity in South Africa so often expressed in harmonious song during the years of oppression? Among the many reasons, I suggest, is that when crowds met to sing--in townships, churches, marches--the music provided a taste of authentic freedom, when in virtually every other sense they were not free. Why is it that freedom and reconciliation have so often been celebrated in this kind of singing? Partly, I believe, because people are experiencing a kind of concord that can embody the kind of freedom in relation to others--even our enemies--that God has made possible.


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