3D Music

Ok, I want to get a little abstract for a minute so just bear with me. Trip Sanders and I were having a conversation about music, culture, and quality and he proposed the idea of an XY axis to define standards in multicultural music (I will explain what this means). I have been thinking about it for a while and would like to take it to another level.

As musicians, we aspire to make excellent music, music with quality. God has called us to use our gifts for His glory and to bring our first fruits to Him in worship. So, suppose we create a hypothetical quality spectrum running from top to bottom. That would be the X axis.

But, the standards of quality are different in different cultures. So the variation of musical quality from culture to culture is represented by the horizontal Y axis. This is was completely Trip’s idea that came out of our conversation.

As I listen to songs to chose which ones would be fitting for our worship, I use this sort of flexibility to determine their quality. A song might be of excellent quality, but is culturally irrelevant, so it would fall on the negative end of the Y axis. Sometimes there are songs that are culturally relevant, but they are poorly written, lacking quality. They would fall on the low end of the X axis, and the high end of the Y axis. The best songs fall in the Northeastern plain of the graph.

Now, I have been thinking about this idea of Trip’s for a while, and I think that I would add a third line to the graph. This would be the Z axis which would make our graph 3 dimensional! The Z axis would be a representation of contemporary relevance. I want to recognize that I am treading on thin ice here because there is a lot that can be said about what constitutes contemporary relevance. Please leave that discussion out for a minute and just stick to the intention of the graph. The Z axis is necessary because culture is not absolute through time, but it is ever changing. The hymns of the past must become relevant to the present to survive. The truth is that some songs fall on the negative end of contemporary relevance. I will pick an easy target for an example: if you open up a Maranatha! Song book from 1989, there will be a lot of songs that will sound so dated that they have become irrelevant to our present culture, but there will be some songs in it (I will pick “As the Deer”) that can still be effectively use in our churches.

3D Music! Being a music filter for the church is a difficult job and cannot be approached flippantly. I spend several hours every week just looking through our list of songs, weighing the value of each, determining their role in the service, etc. My method of choosing songs is never this calculated, but the graph can give you some idea of the complexity of variables involved.

Is this idea a poor judge of a songs merit?
I am assuming that quality is different in different contexts, but is that a dangerous assumption? Is quality an absolute, like truth?
In heaven will we experience God’s music, the music of absolute quality, and will it have perfect J.S. Bach counterpoint?
Are the Y axis and Z axis unnecessary for the X axis? Does quality determine cultural relevance and contemporary relevance? (in other words: is good music always good in every context?)

If all this is too much to think about on a Friday, just check this out.

  1. #1 by Renae in St. Louis on August 5, 2005 - 3:24 pm

    Yes, too much for a Friday. I’ll have to come back to the post, but I followed the link. That is nothing short of *amazing*! It even got L., who was sick of sitting on my lap for blog surfing, to start doing the baby equivalent of purring. I’ll have to show E. after his nap… I think the clip could become a J* family favorite if he approves.

  2. #2 by Clay on August 5, 2005 - 5:42 pm

    Hmm. I’ve got to mull this too. Seems to me that there are lyric and melodic features that are objective indicators of quality. Wasn’t it W. Marsalis that said music occurs when two notes are related to one another and noise occurs when two notes are unrelated, or something along those lines.Lyrically, for example, I think that quality of a psalm, hymn, or spiritual song is directly proportional to the correspondence of the piece to the truths Scripture. This doesn’t necessarily mean singing the exact words, but correspondence to the letter and spirit of God’s Revelation is important and a rather more objective measure of quality than, for example, the amount of repetition in a song, which tends to me more indicative of preference than quality. There is some “quality” in both, however — remember Woody’s “Kelly” song in Cheers. On the other hand, our perception of quality has an inherent subjectivity to it. So, I’m having trouble not seeing the X-axis as Quality in Our (Micro?) Cultural Setting and to Our Sensibilities, which would be very similar to the others. Also, the Y-axis as “variation of musical quality from culture to culture” you apply in the next paragraph as a determination of whether a song is “culturally irrelevant” or not. This makes me think that the Y-axis and the Z-axis are very similar or identical because cultural relevance seems to imply contemperaneousness.Maybe, lyrically, faithfullness to Scriptural truth is simply binary (Yes or No) and assumed even before you get to the chart.Isn’t the BIG goal to maximize ability of a song choice to produce a (or facilitate a Spirit-induced) response that carries participants toward the spiritual objective at hand (e.g, communicate or demonstrate the application of a truth that will come out of the sermon, encourage contrite hearts in preparation for confession, induce the right spiritual posture for communion — could be celebratory or solemn and respectful). If that’s the goal, then it seems to me your axes might be”1. X – quality. From the available choices in a given cultural source, is this among the better lyric and melodic quality judged according to the more objective standards (conformity to Scripture, notes related to one another, etc) balanced with the subjective consideration of whether the music is “good” according to the standards of the source culture.2. Y-axis – understanding. I see this as really a basic comprehension continuum in an international cultural context like NCF. Will 10 people in the congregation be able to undersand the song lyrically and melodically. I’m thinking out loud here, and I’m not fully committed to this axis because it may be to closely related to the Z-axis to be independent. 3. Z – cultural resonance. An inherently subjective thing, and and maybe a mixture of your Y and Z axes. Does the piece have broad cultural appeal in the congregation or narrow cultural appeal measured by the worship participants’ likely subjective response to the song (one rough measure — do they belt it out or mumble it?). This data point (and the Y data point too) for a song can be changed over time by teaching and varying the other two axes by particular melodic and lyrical arrangments (e.g., interspersing Lingala and English; varying instrumentation).This probably has some HUGE blindspots and misses. Another sign of the complexity of the task of the church music filter!

  3. #3 by Aimee on August 8, 2005 - 12:12 am

    What’s the purpose of your system? I’m not clear on that; is it to “define standards in multicultural music,” “judge a song’s merit,” to choose songs for worship, or none of the above? Each of these would require different standards.I do find it interesting that you’ve chosen a Cartesian system to describe your set (data or musical, take your pick). That would assume an infinite spectrum of quantifiable or approximable values that extend from a specified origin which serves as a point of reference. So you need an origin (a zero point for EACH variable) and you also need variables that are independent of one another. I find it difficult to set a zero point for “cultural variation,” but I do like Clay’s inclusive “cultural resonance” idea. That COULD be an axis. But then each culture would need its very own axis. I also agree that spiritual truth is binary, and not an infinite axis.Now I would argue that the quality factor (your x-axis) IS quantifiable but only to a certain degree– AFTER the processing of other variables in a separate formula! The crudest beginnings of “quality” lie in the way that a combination of frequencies in sequence hits the human ear and travels to the brain, releasing neurotransmitters that may or may not evoke a “pleasure” signal. For example, I think that certain intervals register as inborn, universally shared “good” signals in the human brain by virtue of their mathemtical and physical relationships to one another (e.g. octaves). But others map to evoke different responses that are dependent on an individual’s exposure or enculturation and personality (e.g. seconds, minor seconds, blue notes). That brings up the first and crudest of many variables within a variable. This you have recognized, that quality has many variables. You really need variables independent of one another to be able to compare them as x and y in a single coordinate plane. You can’t plot x vs. y if the entire axis of x itself depends on y.So drop the axes! You’ve got a good start on defining some of the variables you use to appreciate or assign value to music. All in all there are just too many variables for a 2 or even 3 dimensional system to handle.I say that because I haven’t come up with a system myself. I don’t like to dog on someone’s proposal without proposing an alternative! I thought about setting the origin as the perfect song, about radial graphing, Venn diagrams, and a bunch of other stuff and then, to be honest, I gave up.

  4. #4 by Kirk Ward on August 8, 2005 - 9:14 am

    Clay and Amiee,I’ve been double teamed by a doctor and a lawyer! There is enough in both of your comments to write a few volumes of books on, so instead of trying to respond to each individual point, i will try to add to the discussion by providing a little context (there’s that word again).The Amercian cultural landscape has been poisoned by the pluralistic/relativistic perception of truth. It is a serious problem and the church has responded in different ways. Some churches hide from the problem by locking up the doors of the church to preserve the culture inside. Other churches become cultural chameleons that blend to the point that Word of God looses its power in their lives because they no longer accept the concept of absolute truth in the revelation of God. In the midst of this descussion of Truth, is the hottly debated topic of musical style. (A descusion of style would usually include lyrical content but I am leaving that out of the descusion for now just because its my blog and I can do what I want!) Trip and I began our conversation about style because we observed a tendency in some of our seminary profs to want to objectify style. Aesthetics, beauty, quality, and similar terms have been debated for centuries in Western philosophy so I am certainly not the first to address the topic. The problem that I want to find a working solution for is that the systematic theology side of my brain likes the idea of absolute quality, but the musician side of my brain revolts against it. If quality is absolute why do I enjoy a song one day and the next day it bores me or visa versa? Why do different cultures value different things in music? What creates the variation? If quality is absolute in the way that truth is, then wouldn’t bad music be sin just like a lie and cultural variation and diversity a effect of the fall? Add on top of that that whenever I hear someone try to define some sort of absolute concept of quality in music, they might begin with something objective like the harmonic overtone series but their arguments always seem to lead back to Pre-modern Western Art music. What happened to “every tribe, tongue, and nation”? Can’t there be some way to rationally concieve of a flexable measure of quality? Why can my seminary profs so easily conceive of the “transcultural interpretation” of scripture and yet a transcultural concept of style comes off as too Po-Mo, too relativistic, or whatever?So, the graph was some vain attempt to try to give a logical and rational framework to understand the flexability of quality from culture to culture, generation to generation, and from congregation to congregation. After I finished the post, I started to think about the infinite number of axise that could be proposed as variables. To sumarize: Absolute Truth-Good!Pluralism-Bad!Absolute quality-undecided.A flexible understanding of quality-I’m working on it.

  5. #5 by Aimee on August 8, 2005 - 2:21 pm

    Oooooh. The deeper issues are revealed! How exciting.I know it sounds cliche, but this puzzle goes all the way back to the question, “What is music?”Try this one on for size: Music was invented by God as a medium of communication through which He can reveal and glorify Himself and by which man can worship Him.So for your purposes maybe we shouldn’t be sizing up the variable qualities intrinsic to certain styles of music, but we should focus on the utility of a style in how it contributes to the fulfillment of music’s original purpose.If its original purpose was that every tongue, tribe, and nation use it to worship him, and all these cultures differ from one another, does it not follow that cultural variation in music is a necessity? Now the quality issue. It hit me after I posted too: maybe it could be described in a formula, like Unger’s formula for dating success*!If I could paste in a picture of this I would but I don’t know how; here’s my first draft.A people group’s perception of quality is the sum of the perceptions of quality of the individuals making up that group.The perception of quality by an individual is directly proportional to the sum of his/her different types of response to the musical stimulus:neurochemical response+ intellectual response+ emotional response+ spiritual responsewhere intellectual response is dependent on one’s cultural intellectual values, religious education, music education, personal experiences, and level of attention. Emotional response is dependent on one’s temperament and the “cultural resonance” factor as well as personal experiences. Neurochemical response is what it is, and spiritual response stands alone for obvious reasons.When applying to worship, multiply that sum by the value of spiritual truth inherent in the song. If it is spiritually untrue that value is zero, and the entire sum is nulled out. If it is true then that value is one, and the sum retains its quantity.There, that was fun.*Unger’s dating formula (a joke): success is directly proportional to (attractiveness x exposures)/standards. Just in case you were wondering.

  6. #6 by Carrie on August 11, 2005 - 3:37 pm

    Yikes. My poor noggin’ hurts now.All I want to know is where in tarnation “Death Is Ended” falls on that thur’ 3-D axes. *grin*

  7. #7 by Chris Trevino on August 11, 2005 - 5:27 pm

    Did you ever see The Dead Poet’s Society? The graph was eerily like the one shown in the movie (relevance vs. quality). At the beginning of the film Robin Williams’ character commands the students to rip that out of their textbooks.I guess what I’m saying is that a mathematical-ish breakdown of quality vs. relevance with respect to art seems a little cold. Art (at least in my flawed opinion) is more about honesty and emotion than perfection and immediate relevance. Anyway, just go and rent the movie 🙂

  8. #8 by Aimee on August 12, 2005 - 11:59 am

    cough! i’m surprised to hear that from an engineer-musician. it’s ALL related! of COURSE they stand alone, but each can be used as a framework upon which to hang and view the other. this discussion has been mostly for fun and partially for mental exercise which is healthy. but on a greater scale, what if no one could comprehend the importance of applying mathematics and objective science to the miracle that is the human body? we would not have the art of medicine. what of art theory, music theory, social sciences, and all the benefits thereof?sure– art, meaning secular art, is what it is and can be left to stand alone for that. but this is greater than ars gratia artis . this is worship.it’s a big step to go from expression to communication, and an even greater distance to arrive at worship. worship is an individual AND a corporate experience. the moment one becomes a worship leader, one becomes a servant to the congregation being led. it is then a responsibility and privilege to understand worship beyond the extent of personal experience for the sake of spreading God’s glory throughout the whole world. thoughtfully identifying and appreciating the import of the trends and factors we were discussing is a part of this. i applaud and am thankful for kirk’s efforts to do so, and to get others to do so. it is to new city’s benefit.in becoming a leader of worship, it is necessary to grow past the adolescent (see Piaget, “personal fable”) tendency to make it entirely about personal response and experience. if growth beyond this stage does not occur then, well, to re-use dead poets society, one ends up a (figurative) lifeless juvenile, dead in a closed world of introspective mediocrity. why stay there, when there is the chance to be a vessel, albeit a flawed one, of a sacrifice of praise?

  9. #9 by Chris Trevino on August 12, 2005 - 4:09 pm

    Whoa there! Such a reproach for a simple movie reference! And please don’t think I’m trying to reprimand Kirk or our worship team, from what I’ve seen it’s probably the best I’ve been a part of.The best article I’ve ever read on worship was by Bono in his introduction to the pocket canon version of Psalms. In the Psalms you have King David spilling his blood and guts and exressing his most honest self from heights of ecstacy to the hollow shrill of abandonment. Worship is, if nothing else, an intensely honest and deeply personal experience. When you take out the mystery and emotion you’re left with something like sex as opposed to love-making (pardon my crassness).Now I wouldn’t dare deny the corporate/communative aspects of worship, or the need to move beyond a focus on “me” (nice reference BTW), that’s the root of all sin. But worship should involve every bit of us: physically, emotionally, intellectually, etc…I feel like I’m ranting now, so I’ll stop. I really didn’t mean to kick start an argument there, just point out that the graph was in a movie.. and that was a little eerie.

  10. #10 by Aimee (prickly pineapple) on August 12, 2005 - 5:36 pm

    i’m not sure where we disagree– i don’t think we do. that’s one nice thing about open discussion; you find you agree with people more often than you’d think. as i wrote above somewhere in some wordy wordy way, emotional and spiritual responses (especially the latter, the undefinable) are important elements of worship.in my last comment i was going to write that i don’t mean to be mean! or argumentative, or pedantic. i just care a lot about this topic. the last thing i want to do is put people on the defensive (intensity tends to do that), or keep people from discussing openly. that’s the point of this forum, right? heck, i’m just glad people are thinking about these things and responding to kirk’s posts. come on everybody, bring it!so, um…the graph? just proof that solomon was right, there’s nothing new under the sun. and now what do i do? type in smileys or bat my eyelashes or something?

  11. #11 by Kirk Ward on August 13, 2005 - 3:37 pm

    Wow! A real debate going on the ol’ blog! awesome! That is what I was hoping for. Chris, a few hours after I posted the whole graph deal I remembered that scene from DPS and felt a little foolish. There is an old expression, (i forget who said it) “Talking about music is like dancing about architecture.” But then if I really lived by that philosophy, I certainly wouldn’t have started a blog about music/worship. Anyway, you are deffinately right about the inexpressable, unquantifiable nature of art. Our act as creators reflects the nature of our Lord, who cannot be contained or classified. However, we also serve a God who has revealed himself to us in His word. So there are things we know for certain about the one true God. Our God is not Baal. Our God is just and loving and slow to anger. I could go on. I guess what I’m saying is that I agree with both you and Aimee that there something mysterious about art, but there are some things that are true and are always true, even in the relm of art. The universe reflects the God who created it. There are profound mysteries, and there are quantifiable truths. Worship has to based on Truth (capital T) but it’s focus is on an infinate God and so as worship musicians we always walk the line between Dead Poets Society and…uh…maybe, Mr. Holland’s Opus (a film about a guy teaching kids how to play the basic elements of music with excellence at the cost of his own aesthetic vision.) hmmmmm, Mr. Holland is the best counterpoint to Dead Poets that I could think of, maybe I should have said School of Rock?Well done Chris and Aimee!

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