Songs that Stir Us: The Incredible Power of Music

Image by Filipe Frazao for iStock

Now that I have young children, I’ve become far more aware of the lyrics we casually sing along to on the radio. In a thoughtless moment of musical delight, I’ve often praised: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire and covetousness, which is idolatry (Colossians 3:5). We may not always be condoning such behaviour in our hearts. But with our mouths and bodies we participate in the celebration of it.

The Disconnect between Lips and Heart

This example hopefully shows how disconnected our hearts and minds can be from the music we listen to and sing. Music doesn’t always need to engage our intellectual faculties in order to provide satisfaction or lift our spirits. Apparently sometimes all we need is a beat in order to move our feet. However, the inverse is also true. When music plays, our most intimate thoughts and emotions might be stirred and expressed, engaging our hearts and minds fully. Internal emotions that could never find words, might suddenly be released by a song.

At any given moment there may be people singing along thoughtlessly, while others are experiencing a deep inner response to the wonder of Christ

Let me bring these thoughts toward our expression of singing as the church. At any given moment there may be people singing along thoughtlessly, while others are experiencing a deep inner response to the wonder of Christ. What can we do about this dual-reality? Why not simply recite the words without music? Wouldn’t that ensure that everyone is engaging with the truth rather than being swept up in the tune?

The Power of Music and Song

To quote a favourite writer of mine, F. W. Boreham, “And thus music revives, as nothing else can do, the tender grace of a day that is dead… There is a sublime virtue in anything that brings us into vital touch with the glorious past.” Music has this ability to transport us back to another time; perhaps a song reminds us of a time that was wonderful, and we cannot help but sing the song with gladness.

Many are aware of the power music possesses to reach deep within us. Fortunately, so is God, since he has created us

Even when we are reminded of sorrow, it allows us to sing with deeper reflection and remembrance. It is our ability to feel and be driven by unexplainable emotion that connects us to music. It is as if music has the key to our heart strings. Mere words might never reach that deep. Many are aware of this power that can reach within us. Fortunately, so is God, since he has created us.

God Created us to Sing, and he Created Songs to Stir us

Consider the song of Moses and Mariam, “Sing to the Lord, for he is highly exalted. The horse and its rider he has hurled into the sea” (Exodus 15:1). Hear David’s exhortation, “Give thanks to the Lord, call on his name; make known among the nations what he has done. Sing to him, sing praise to him; tell of all his wonderful acts” (1 Chronicles 16:8-9). In Luke’s Gospel we see Mary and Zechariah praising God for what he has done for his people. We could easily list more passages.

God gives divine expressions designed for music. He gives us truths bound up in song. Our God knows the power of music. He desires that we use it well

In his Word, God calls us to remember, and in remembering to be moved to praise. The way we do this is not just to go back and read the history books. God gave us the history, the law and the prophets—the various genres we meet in the Bible. But he deemed it necessary to give us divine expressions designed for music. He gives us truths bound up in song. Our God knows the power of music. He desires that we use it well.

The Link between Melody and Meaning

Worship music offers us at least two mediums of expression, sounds and sayings, or melody and meaning if you will. Both are important. In Confessions, Saint Augustine rightly treated music with caution. Aware of its power, he wrestled with the balance of the moving melody and lyrical content. His was determined to always uphold the latter. He described himself as having ‘grievously sinned’ when being ‘more moved by the singing rather than the thing that is sung’. But what about the inverse? I would argue that we should be as wary of music that fails to move us at all.

The fact that Scripture calls us to sing and not only recite tells me that there is an appropriate emotion expected from worshippers. Music has a unique role in our experience or expression of biblical truth

Singing that stirs our emotions is not something to avoid. Rather we must use it appropriately. I have often flipped through hymnals and wondered at the lyrics of an unfamiliar hymn, only to play the melody and feel vastly removed or even distracted by the generic melody. The mood should match the message, and when it does it provides a beautiful freedom of expression. The fact that Scripture calls us to sing and not only recite tells me that there is an appropriate emotion expected from worshippers. Music has a unique role in our experience or expression of biblical truth.

Music can Unlock Meaning and True Emotions

A few years ago I worked through a series in the Psalms. When I came to Psalm 42 and 43 I struggled to understand what seemed to be inconsistent imagery. I eventually got lost in the individual words and metaphors employed by David. Granted, I like things to be neat and in order and to align methodologically. One quiet afternoon I eventually put the books aside and came across a version of the Psalm that had been put to song. As I closed my eyes and resigned my mind to the sounds around me, the emotion and struggle of the Psalm slowly unfolded with each verse until I was brought to tears, and utterly overwhelmed by the emotion of the repeated refrain,

Why are you downcast O my soul,
why so disturbed within me?
Hope in God; for I shall again praise him,
my salvation and my God

The music tugged on my emotions. Singing filled out the meaning. Because my mind had already engaged with the words, I could discern that those surging emotions were not only appropriate, but right and good. Music did not cause me to learn additional intellectual truth. It helped me to align my emotions and my posture to that truth, as I responded in tears and praise.

Music did not cause me to learn additional intellectual truth. It helped me to align my emotions and my posture to that truth, as I responded in tears and praise.

Conclusion

Our pastor is currently teaching through the letter to the Ephesians. A few individuals were so encouraged by this book that they decided to write a song. As they worked through the Scriptures they gathered a few of the themes and ideas into a beautiful summary of what Ephesians calls us to believe—and how to live. After being taught about the unity we have in the body it was emotionally wonderful to declare together (see Ephesians 3:14-21),

We will bow to the God of grace
Christ will dwell in our hearts through faith
Now to him, be glory and praise
In the church and in Jesus

In closing, be reminded of how music can manipulate hollow emotions, but also be warned not to suppress those that are necessary and good. For we should not only sing as the expression of our minds’ understanding, then we could simply speak. Rather in song our souls should praise and our spirits rejoice!

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