I must admit it is far easier to write or talk about principles of music appreciation as compared to the practical application of these principles. And this has been the hard part in my own journey to love music well. Over the past few years, I have consistently struggled in my effort to form good habits in music. With so many different mediums of music in our culture, music invades our lives even if we do not intentionally participate. We are all affected by music, positively and negatively, but this does not mean we retreat into a world of strictly classical music and become snobs about other people’s music habits and preferences. The goal of cultivating your own musical tastes is so that you may, in turn, teach and encourage others to approach music in all forms and genres with humility and integrity. This is what brings God pleasure—His glory spread to others by means of tainted vessels.
With that being said, let me suggest just three practical ways (among many more) that you can seek to cultivate a love for music within your own home in order to treat music with wisdom.
- Sing, Sing, Sing!
Singing is an invitation to participate in Trinitarian life. Music is a tool used by God through the work of His Son whereby He continues to enact reconciliation by the Holy Spirit. God displays His love by singing over us (Zephaniah 3:17), Jesus sings with us as a way of identifying our union with Him (Hebrews 2:12), and by the Holy Spirit we are commanded to encourage one another by singing (Ephesians 5:18-19). Therefore, singing is not just a human response to the Creator; it is participation in the Creator’s work in the world. This is why music is such an intricate part of the Lord’s Day service. One of the functions of corporate worship on Sunday is that it trains us how to live in the world Monday through Saturday. The order of the service in gathering, confession, forgiveness, preaching, offerings, meal (Lord’s Supper), and benediction gives us a pattern for the Christian life.i In most services, these elements of worship transition from one to another through the singing of God’s people in praise and thanks. Singing in worship can often be the form for how many of these elements take place. In this light, worship teaches us that we are a singing people. Additionally, our Christian history, extending all the way back to Israel, has depicted the church as a singing people with the Psalms as our hymnbook. So if you are ever curious as to what you should be singing, sing the Psalms. The Psalms have been given to God’s people to be sung by God’s people.
Practically, find more opportunities to sing with your family. If you are a family who regularly eats around the table, be a family that regularly sings around the table. If you have patterns of bedtime for your children, include singing to them or together as part of their bedtime routine. If you have routines of driving together in the car, sing together in the car. If you are not a family who regularly sings together, attempting to implement family singing may be awkward for a while. The awkwardness is just part of the growing pains which accompany something well worth doing. Another function of singing together is that it binds people together. This is such an important function for the corporate body of Christ and it is also important for family stability. Singing together is an intimate act of fellowship. Singing in harmony or even in unison with someone else binds your words and voice with that person in such a way that it brings you closer to that person. Singing together is an act of love for one another. If you struggle finding songs to sing with your family, pick up a hymnal or two… or ten! Hymns are a great means for instruction in learning the Bible and its wisdom while also loving one another by singing the words or principles of God’s Word together.
Speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord…
– Ephesians 5:19 (KJV)
- Play an instrument. (*All of this can be said of singing, too.)
Unfortunately, we somehow think that the time to learn an instrument is only during our younger years. We tell ourselves, “If I did not start an instrument when I was young, there is no sense in starting it when I am older.” Parents and their instruction to their children to be musical and play instruments can seem almost one-directional. The underlying message from parents is, “Don’t be like us,” because they regret not sticking with their instrument. However, I am afraid this is only enabling the problem of children gradually parting from their instrument the older they get. I cannot tell you how many times adults have told me they wish they had stuck with their instrument as a child or they wish their parents would have made them stick with their instrument. I believe a large part of the reason why so many people have this regret is because they did not have parents who modeled the very thing that they instructed their children to do. In one way, I think this is common sense. If we truly want our children to value something, would it not be helpful for them to see their parents value it, too? The most important reason why a parent should start an instrument is for the sake of their children and their children’s efforts to stick with their instrument. Words can only take your children so far. Parents must also set the example in what they are teaching and instructing. I believe this is why Classical Conversations is so rewarding. Children see their parents treat education seriously and the parents are learning also! You parents are modeling for your children what it means to be a lifelong learner. The same applies to musical learning.
As an adult, picking up an instrument is perhaps one of the hardest things to maintain. One of the reasons is because pragmatically, all of the work and effort in learning the instrument are essentially invisible for the first few years. It is hard to be motivated to continue your instrument when it took you a week or longer to play Mary Had a Little Lamb. A few years back, I was given a violin by my parents on Christmas. I tried playing it for about a week. I sounded so bad that I have not picked it up since. I had no idea how hard it was to start playing the violin and this deflated my motivation to continue the instrument. I decided to stick with my attempts at improving on the piano instead. Maybe one day I will return to the violin. The point is that though I do know how to play an instrument, I also understand how hard it is to start an instrument as an adult. However, it might be good for your children, maybe even encouraging, to see their dad or mom struggle at playing their instrument. It might give them a proper view of hard work and what it means to learn. With all the amazing musicians out there, beginners often get discouraged when starting an instrument. Children need to see times of hard work and frustration from playing an instrument and not just the virtuoso pianist or violinist on YouTube. Both can be encouraging and both can be motivating. Parents have a wonderful opportunity to give their children a realistic perspective of how to be disciplined with an instrument, which may result in your children sticking with their instrument their whole life. What a wonderful gift to give your children!
In all labour there is profit: but the talk of the lips tendeth only to penury.
– Proverbs 14:23 (KJV)
- Don’t be discouraged!
Sometimes I fall into the trap of thinking that because I am pursuing music a certain way, everyone else should pursue music in that same way. This is arrogance and even the people with the noblest pursuits can fall prey to this sort of blindness. We all have different lives, different responsibilities, and different contexts. You do not have to read books on the theology of music, musicology, biblical aesthetics, or the philosophy of music. You probably do not have the time! You may not have the time to sit down and listen to the beautiful Rachmaninov vespers or even the new Sufjans Stevens album. More than likely, you do not have the time or energy to learn an instrument and that is fine. Please do not hear me as saying all parents MUST play an instrument or their children will never stick with their instruments. There are stages of life and sometimes we cannot do many of the things we wish or desire to do. Life can often delay those good pursuits and we should not be discouraged if we are unable to approach God’s gifts the way someone else is able to, or the way that would be most ideal. With that being said, I would still encourage you to seek wisdom in your music habits and experiences. I understand that “seek wisdom” can be an overused cliché in many Christian contexts. It is often used with such ambiguity that it leaves Christians even more frustrated amidst suffering or trials. But our desire for truth, our desire for beauty, must be sought out. Wisdom must be pursued, even in music.
Seeking wisdom in music could mean a number of things and it depends on each person’s context. Playing an instrument and singing are just some of the ways we can treat music with dignity and respect, and while I would encourage anyone to start an instrument, singing may be the wisest and most important of musical pursuits.
My heart is fixed, O God, my heart is fixed: I will sing and give praise.
– Psalm 57:7 (KJV)
i Far more could be said here about how the elements of worship mirror our lives lived in the world. For the sake of this article, I only wrote about music and not the other elements of worship. For more information on this subject, see James K.A. Smith’s book Desiring the Kingdom.