This past weekend, I had the privilege of attending the Circe Conference: A Contemplation on Harmony. It was an amazing experience filled with a variety of wonderful lectures and workshops on big ideas about harmony. The following thoughts are my attempt to synchronize some concepts from the conference with musical harmony.
The makeup of musical harmony consists of tones that sound pleasant when played or sung together. These pleasant tones are based on mathematical rationale having to do with precise ratios between two different frequencies of vibrations when two sounds are heard together. Our understanding of music’s pleasantness depends on specific mathematics. To put it simply, music is the sound of numbers. This is why a musician would study math in the medieval university where the quadrivium was taught. This is why both theologians and musicologists regard Bach as the most astonishing composer/musician to have ever lived. Some even speculate that Bach was a better mathematician than he was a musician.
Harmony must be seen as something inherent within the created universe and not something we make up or invent. The planets orbiting within our solar system, the seasonal changes we experience each year, and our human bodies all function in harmony. There is an order within creation, an objective order that no one can deny. The idea of harmony is a much larger concept than what many reduce it to within popular culture. Harmony in music, if understood properly, says far more about the truth of the universe than the mere pleasantness we receive from harmonious tones. In this sense, music’s significance is not what our culture today claims it to be. Music is not something that just expresses our personal experiences and personal preferences. Instead, music gives us more reason to trust that all of nature is given by our Creator as a means to know more about who our God really is. The purpose of this gift, like all other gifts from our God, is so that we may then fill the earth with His glory.
However, an understanding of which tones sound pleasant when combined with other tones (consonance) can only exist in a context of tones that do not sound good together (dissonance). Meaning, a pleasant sound of harmonious tones can only be discerned as pleasant if there are also unpleasant sounds to contrast. Otherwise, what would be the need of discerning the pleasant sounds if all sounds were pleasant? From a theological perspective, our perceptions of harmony labeled as consonance vs. dissonance can be analogized with the conflict we experience daily between right and wrong or righteousness and sin. Creation communicates not just the wonder of our God and the beauty of heaven; it also communicates the state of things as they are. God relates to us the truth of our experiences with the truth of His creation. An example such as this helps us harmonize the truth from Scripture and what we discover and experience within creation. Theology is wedded into the physical makeup of creation connecting with us in profound ways.
Because of man’s sin, harmony (peace) is needed. God reconciling us out of bondage, out of unpleasantness, is a picture of two things. First, it is a picture of our need of saving or our lack of harmony. Within music, the need to discern pleasant tones reminds us of our need to be renewed with our Creator. Second, reconciliation is a picture of what God saves us into and not just the disharmony from which He saves us. God does not just save us from destruction. He also saves us by bringing us into creation (harmony) with Him so that we might share in His work. We are active participants in harmony. This is the image of God found in each person; creators meant to create and reflect the Creator.
Understanding harmony by using contrast is fundamental for developing one’s musical experiences. Good composers of music will often use opposites in the same composition to communicate themes of beauty, light, or victory. This is achieved by contrasting patterns of sequence. For example, a phrase of music may better represent beauty if it is preceded by dark dissonant tones. Our ears interpret this discord as tense or rough, leading us to expect or even crave harmony. When the music arrives at this pleasant sound, we are all the more filled with joy because in a way, we “needed” it. Just like a runner’s thirst is quenched with water after the turmoil of a long race, so our musical appetite is quenched when we experience harmony after disharmony. This draws strong connections with the ebb and flow of life. We experience doubt, trials, death, and dissonance causing us to crave beauty, peace, and harmony. Despite our sin, the hardships of life give us an appropriate view of beauty and joy.
Like the contrast of consonance and dissonance in music, there are other dualities that music entails. Music’s ability to communicate contrasts of high and low, long and short, loud and soft, strong and weak, rising and falling, fast and slow, simple and complex, are all testaments of our experiences. These are fundamental dualities that we understand in our day-to-day living apart from music. Music connects with us because of its subtle connections with the truths of our own life experiences. Interestingly, these experiences of high and low, strong and weak, and rising and falling can also be pictures or analogies of God’s saving work set against the darkness of sin and evil.
Appreciating harmony by way of contrasts helps us understand harmony within a variety of theological themes and Christian living. For example, we can only recognize resurrection if we recognize death. What does resurrection mean if we are unable to understand that which makes resurrection needed? How is the rich young ruler to believe that he will gain his life by giving up all that he has? How is Jesus both God and man? Contrast is crucial to harmony. Light cannot be understood without darkness, joy without lament, mercy without wrath, perfection without brokenness, happiness without suffering, celebrating without fasting, and the examples go on and on. The reality of truth exists in God holding two seemingly opposing elements in tension with one another for the sake of love. This is an appropriate view of harmony.