Mystery of music

What it's "good" for, after all

Issue: "Humanity Under the Microscope," Dec. 8, 2001

The radio station I listen to on the way to work has a new post-September feature, a "song of the week" sent out to America to strengthen droopy spirits, a melodic nostrum for the travail of souls. The latest offering is Vernon Duke's "Autumn in New York," and boy am I susceptible-I who am wired for melancholy anyway and who was already nostalgic at age 10 before I had years under my belt to be nostalgic about. "Autumn in New York" can make me crumple up in a corner if I'm not careful, or take the day off and walk barefoot in the park. It burrowed itself under my skin for the afternoon, secreting stabs of yearning and irrational hope-and a faith in the permanence of "glittering crowds" and "shimmering clouds" and "canyons of steel."

We are no closer to solving the mystery of music than when young Benedict in Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing posed the question, "Is it not strange that sheep's guts should hale souls out of men's bodies?" Of all the evolutionary materialist's problems, I think music is the biggest. What is it "good" for, after all? What survival-of-species benefit does it bestow?

In 1969, when a generation was all awash in the ersatz courage of hashish and The Fifth Dimension's "Age of Aquarius," protests at the University of California (Berkeley) over the use of a three-acre lot ("People's Park") led to action by the National Guard. In a later series of essays on the incident, one local pundit laid the blame for failure on the absence of rock music at the scene. He may be right.

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America does nothing without a soundtrack. My driving-age son feels so naked without the wrap-around sound of Rock in the car that he once canceled a trip when the CD player was broken. Glen Miller and Benny Goodman were arguably as indispensable to Allied success in the '40s as Harry Truman and Winston Churchill-an insight into the human psyche not lost on "Tokyo Rose" and "Hanoi Hannah." ("We Gotta Get Out of This Place," an Eric Burden song, was regularly heard on Radio Hanoi during the Vietnam war-and banned on the U.S. Armed Forces Radio.) Life's just not all it's cracked up to be without the background music of distant violins or electric guitars (your designer mood of choice), ennobling human endeavor and exalting daily tedium to a heroic plane.

And then there's Jesus.

"Jesus left the temple and was walking away when His disciples came up to Him to call His attention to its buildings." But Jesus wasn't playin'. Sentimental mood forays into the glory of man weren't the way He lifted His droopy spirit. Nor was He inordinately impressed with "canyons of steel"-or their ancient precursors, limestone porticos, and Lebanon cedar paneling. "'Do you see all these things?' He asked. 'I tell you the truth, not one stone here will be left on another, every one will be thrown down'" (Matthew 24:1-2).

Had it ended there, we would call that the blues-and all the sadness in Billie Holliday couldn't do it justice: love running cold, clashing kingdoms, rumors of war, rumblings of earthquakes, the flight of pregnant women, and the grand finale of shaking stars and a blood-doused moon (Matthew 24:4-29). But there was more to the score. And when Jesus sang with His friends on the night before He died (Matthew 26:30), the night He called "Satan's hour," it's a safe bet that the song was not about escapism but about tapping into a deeper truth.

There is a sense in which all my sanctification, all these years, has been the process of God's prying my fingers from the wrong songs, those "we're all in this together against a remote God and doing the best we can" songs.

"Surely the idolatrous commotion on the hills and mountains is a deception" (Jeremiah 3:23). Let the time that is past suffice for the broken record of nostalgia and wallowing; they will be playing it still as Babylon crumbles around them (Revelation 18:9-19). "Autumn in New York" isn't what I ache for anyway, but just a pointer and echo. Say, do you hear it? Do you feel the vibes already? The creation freed of its groaning, and bursting with the song it was created to sing: "Then all the trees of the forest will sing" (Psalm 96:12); "Let the rivers clap their hands, let the mountains sing together for joy; let them sing before the Lord, for He comes to judge the earth" (Psalm 98:8-9). Was there ever a truer lyric? Or a music more worth listening for?

Andrée Seu
Andrée Seu

Andrée is the author of three books: Won't Let You Go Unless You Bless Me, Normal Kingdom Business, and We Shall Have Spring Again. Follow Andrée on Twitter @Andreespeterson.

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