Volume 37 - Issue 3

Music, Singing, and Emotions: Exploring the Connections

By Robert S. Smith


Music, singing and emotions: what are the connections? The question is by no means new, but it’s certainly one that has received renewed attention in recent times...

1. Introduction

Music, singing and emotions: what are the connections? The question is by no means new, but it’s certainly one that has received renewed attention in recent times. Of particular interest is the power of music to foster emotional health and psychosocial well-being. For example, in his Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain, Neurologist Oliver Sacks not only explores the pathologies of musical response from a clinical point of view, but also provides a deeply personal and moving account of the role that music played in lifting him out of depression after the death of his mother. Sacks writes:

For weeks I would get up, dress, drive to work, see my patients, try to present a normal appearance. But inside I was dead, as lifeless as a zombie. Then one day as I was walking down Bronx Park East, I felt a sudden lightening, a quickening of mood, a sudden whisper or intimation of life, of joy. Only then did I realize that I was hearing music, though so faintly it might have been no more than an image or memory. As I continued to walk, the music grew louder, until finally I came to its source, a radio pouring Schubert out of an open basement window. The music pierced me, releasing a cascade of images and feelings-memories of childhood, of summer holidays together and of my mother’s fondness for Schubert . . . I found myself not only smiling for the first time in weeks, but laughing aloud-and alive once again.1

The fact that music and singing have a profound ability to both impact and express human emotions will not come as a surprise to many. Common experience confirms the connection, as does the biblical witness. ‘Is anyone cheerful?’, writes James. ‘Let him sing songs of praise’ (James 5:13 ESV).

However, when one starts to probe into the precise connections between music, singing and the emotions and asks a seemingly innocent question like, How can a piece of music be both expressive of emotion and also generate emotion in human beings?, we suddenly find that we have entered a realm where a number of distinct disciplines intersect. For example, musicology, psychology, neurology, biology, anthropology, philosophy and theology all have an interest in such questions and (on their better days) provide complementary accounts and partial answers. But (on their worse days) they provide competing accounts that simply increase the level of crosstalk and confusion.

So how should we proceed in trying to understand the connections between music, singing and emotion? My approach is this essay is threefold. Firstly, I wish to offer some reflections on the world that God has made, drawing on some of the less controversial findings of various musicological, psychological and neurobiological studies. Secondly, I will offer some reflections on the word that God has spoken, exploring some of the links we find between music, singing and emotions in the Old and New Testaments. Thirdly, I want to offer some reflections on the history of Christian thought, drawing on the insights of a number of theologians who have wrestled with these matters-despite coming to differing conclusions.

1.1. Definitions

But before going further, I need to define how I am using the three terms ‘music’, ‘singing’ and ’emotion’.

Music. Music can be variously defined from a range of different perspectives. For example, it can be defined phenomenologically; that is, in terms of it being an organised arrangement of sounds and silences. Or it can be defined functionally; that is, in terms of it being a communicative activity that conveys moods to the listener. Or it can be defined culturally; that is, by taking account of the fact that the line between what is regarded as music and what is regarded as noise changes over time and varies from culture to culture. Without disputing the value of any and all of these definitions, in this essay I am simply using it to refer to music that has no lyrical content; that is, by ‘music’ I mean ‘instrumental music’.

Singing. My definition of singing follows from this. By ‘singing’ I mean more than the activity of making musical sounds with the human voice. That is an entirely legitimate activity and a valid way of defining ‘singing’. It is not, however, how I am using the term. By singing I mean the musical communication of words that have meaning at least to the person singing them, if not to the person or persons hearing them as well. It is in that sense that I am distinguishing music from song.

Emotion. Here again there are many possible definitions (depending on whether one thinks of emotions as primarily cognitive or primarily non-cognitive or as some combination of the two).2 I am using the word in a fairly unsophisticated way to cover a broad range of perceptions, expressions of feeling (like joy or grief) and the related bodily changes that normally accompany such feelings (like smiling or crying). The question I am pursuing, then, may be expressed thus: How do music and song influence and express such perceptions and reactions?

1.2. Limitations

Before we turn to the first part of our study, let me briefly mention some of things that this essay will not attempt do. Firstly, I will not attempt to identify (let alone discuss) the many functions of music and singing in general human experience-such as their ability to help us remember events and words-or the many purposes that music and singing serve in the gatherings of God’s people-such as their ability to unite people and express fellowship. Secondly, I will not attempt to provide a survey of everything that the Bible has to say about music and singing-as valuable as that would be.3 Thirdly, I will make no reference to the many different types of music and song that have arisen and been utilized in Church history, nor make any assessment of which types of music or styles of singing are best suited to Christian use.4

2. Soundings from the World That God Has Made

With these things understood, let us embark on an exercise in sanctified natural theology (or, more accurately, natural anthropology) to see what we can learn from the world that God has made.

2.1. Music and Emotions

How do we begin to account for the fact that music can both express and arouse emotion? Stephen Davies, a philosopher at the University of Auckland with an interest in the aesthetics of art, suggests that the connection lies in what he calls ‘Appearance emotionalism’.5 That is, music appears to be sad (for example) in the same way that a weeping willow looks sad. Because the tree is bent over, it appears to resemble a person who is racked with grief. Davies puts it like this: ‘The resemblance that counts most for music’s expressiveness [ . . . ] is between music’s temporally unfolding dynamic structure and configurations of human behaviour associated with the expression of emotion.’6

So, to continue the example above, music can recall an appearance of sadness by a gradual downward movement, or by utilizing underlying patterns of unresolved tension, or by employing dark timbres, or thick harmonic bass textures.7 Clearly, Davies is onto something here. Indeed, it is well known that minor keys and slow tempos tend to express and evoke sadness, just as major keys and fast tempos tend to express and evoke happiness. However, I have deliberately said ‘tend to’ because the ‘expressiveness’ of a piece of music is largely ‘response dependent’-that is, it is realized in the listener’s response. And not all listeners have the same response. For perceptions of similarity are not always shared. One person may see them and so be deeply moved by a piece of music, while another may miss them altogether and be quite unaffected.

Nevertheless, the fact that many listeners have a similar response to the same piece of music, suggests that there must be some objective component to its emotional expressiveness, even though the same emotions are not always subjectively experienced by all listeners in the same way. The reason for the variation is simple: not only is each listener unique, but music is never heard in a vacuum. Jeremy Begbie from Duke Divinity School (who, as well as being a systematic theologian, is a trained musician with a particular interest in the interface between theology and the arts) explains why:

[M]usic is never heard on its own but as part of a perceptual complex that includes a range of non-musical phenomena: for example, the physical setting in which we hear the music, memories of people associated with it, artificial images (as in the case of film and video), words (the lyrics of a song, program notes, the title of a piece, what someone said about the piece on the radio), and so on . . . Music is perceived in a manifold environment. And this generates a fund of material for us to be emotional ‘about’.8

But alongside these associations, there is now a growing body of literature stemming from a range of neurobiological studies showing how emotional responses to music have a direct effect on our hormone levels. For example, some music can increase levels of melatonin (which can help to induce sleep) and likewise decrease levels of cortisol (the hormone associated with stress).9

In addition to this, a number of neuroimaging studies have mapped the effects of music on the paralimbic regions of the brain, regions that are associated with our capacity to process and express emotion. As these regions are stimulated by music, the net effect is a highly therapeutic one for both mind and body. Dr Randall McClellan explains why:

Emotions that are not expressed when they are felt may be turned inward where they can add stress to weakened parts of the body. When the stress is prolonged our natural ability to resist disease is impaired and illness may ensue [ . . . ] When used regularly, music is an effective vehicle for the dissipation of normal day-to-day emotional stress. But in times of intense emotional crisis, music can focus and guide emotional release by bringing the emotion to catharsis and providing it with the means of expression.10

2.2. Singing and Emotions

So clearly there is much to be said for the healing effects of music. But what happens when we bring the human voice into the picture? How does singing both express and evoke emotion? Here again theories abound, and various insights can be gleaned from a number of disciplines.

What is incontrovertible is that voice is ‘an essential aspect of human identity: of who are we are, how we feel, how we communicate, and how other people experience us.’11 It is also clear that the human voice has the capacity to convey emotion in a range of different ways-through changes in pitch, contour, volume, etc. It is also significant that the six primary human emotions-fear, anger, joy, sadness, surprise, and disgust-are all usually expressed vocally,12 and are likewise differentiated by strong vocal acoustic variation.13As Dr Graham Welch from the University of London puts it: ‘Each of these basic emotions has a characteristic vocal acoustic signature and an acoustic profile that is associated with a strong characteristic emotional state.’14 In other words, even if we do not understand the words that someone is saying or singing, it is usually fairly obvious what emotion is being conveyed.

Added to all this, and this the main point that I want to highlight, is the fact that when we sing, we usually sing words with meanings, and those words not only facilitate the communication of the cognitive content of the song, but the singing of them helps communicate the emotional content of the song as well. More than that, the fact that we are singing these words (or hearing them sung) also helps us to feel an emotion appropriate to the words we are singing (or hearing).

This truth was captured beautifully and succinctly by the late Yip Harburg-the man who wrote the lyrics for all the songs in TheWizard of Oz, including the hauntingly evocative classic, ‘Over the rainbow’. What Harburg famously said was this: ‘Words make you think a thought; music makes you feel a feeling; a song makes you feel a thought.’ The physiological reality behind this observation, as a number of neuroimaging studies have now shown, is that whilst the majority of sensorimotor processes for singing and speaking are the same, singing engages parts of our brain (particularly in the right hemisphere) that speaking alone does not.15 This is why singing is a unique activity not only for expressing and conveying emotion, but also for processing the emotional dimensions of cognitive thought.

It is not surprising, then, that people who have experienced great trauma can sometimes find it very difficult to sing-for singing threatens to awaken their emotional processes, which they have deliberately shut down in order to protect themselves from the full horror of what they have experienced. But it is also why singing can function as a very effective means of gently releasing suppressed emotions and of helping people to process the truth and reality behind their inner pain.

My positive point here, however, is simply that singing not only helps us to engage the emotional dimensions of our humanity, but that singing truth helps us to engage with the emotional dimensions of reality, thus helping to bridge the gap between cognitive knowledge and experiential knowledge. This is a point we will return to below.

3. Soundings from the Word That God Has Spoken

Moving now from the world that God has made (and what can be observed by various natural anthropological means), we turn to the word that God has spoken. What can we learn from God’s special revelation in Scripture about the connections between music, singing and our emotions? We begin with some soundings from the Old Testament.

3.1. The Old Testament

The first thing the Old Testament reveals is a profound link between the joy that results from experiencing God’s salvation and the making of music and the singing of songs. We see this first in Exodus 15 where after the LORD has rescued the people of Israel from the Egyptian army, Miriam takes a tambourine in hand (v. 20) and as all the women follow her with tambourines and dancing, she sings to them saying:

Sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously;

the horse and his rider he has thrown into the sea. (Exod. 15:21, ESV)

And so the beginning of the chapter tells us that Moses and the people of Israel followed suit, singing to the Lord, saying:

1 . . . I will sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously;

the horse and his rider he has thrown into the sea.

2 The Lord is my strength and my song,

and he has become my salvation;

this is my God, and I will praise him,

my father’s God, and I will exalt him. (Exod. 15:1b-2, ESV)

As John Durham points out, this celebration of ‘Yahweh present with his people and doing for them as no other god anywhere and at any time can be present to do [ . . . ] is a kind of summary of the theological base of the whole Book of Exodus.’16 For that reason, ‘it is more than merely a hymn of Yahweh’s victory over Pharaoh and his Egyptians in the sea.’17 Indeed its primary focus is on the kind of God the LORD is, and the kind of things he does, and the kind of response that this creates. It that sense, it is paradigmatic. Not surprisingly, then, other Scriptures pick up these very same themes and forge the same connections-most notably Isaiah 12:

1 You will say in that day:

‘I will give thanks to you, O Lord,

for though you were angry with me,

your anger turned away,

that you might comfort me.

2 ‘Behold, God is my salvation;

I will trust, and will not be afraid;

for the Lord God is my strength and my song,

and he has become my salvation.’

3 With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation.

4 And you will say in that day:

‘Give thanks to the Lord,

call upon his name,

make known his deeds among the peoples,

proclaim that his name is exalted.

5 Sing praises to the Lord, for he has done gloriously;

let this be made known in all the earth.

6 Shout, and sing for joy, O inhabitant of Zion,

for great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel.’ (Isa. 12:1-6, ESV)

As Barry Webb points out in his commentary, ‘[t]he singing in this chapter follows in the same way that the song of Exodus 15 followed the original exodus.’18 In fact, the words in Isaiah 12:2- ‘God is my strength and my song, and he has become my salvation’-are almost an exact quotation of Exodus 15:2. And the beginning of v. 5- ‘Sing praises to the LORD, for he has done gloriously’- clearly echoes Exodus 15:21.

The simple message here is this: where there is salvation there is joy and where there is joy there is singing. They follow one another as night follows day and day follows night. For as people are taken from an experience of slavery to an experience of redemption, from an experience of God’s anger to an experience of his comfort, from a place of fear to a place of trust, they have every reason to rejoice. And out of their joy they sing and make music.19

Precisely the same connections are seen in the book of Psalms. The opening verses of Psalm 98 is just one of many similar examples:

1 Oh sing to the Lord a new song,

for he has done marvelous things!

His right hand and his holy arm

have worked salvation for him.

2 The Lord has made known his salvation;

he has revealed his righteousness in the sight of the nations.

3 He has remembered his steadfast love and faithfulness

to the house of Israel.

All the ends of the earth have seen

the salvation of our God.

4 Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth;

break forth into joyous song and sing praises!

5 Sing praises to the Lord with the lyre,

with the lyre and the sound of melody!

6 With trumpets and the sound of the horn

make a joyful noise before the King, the Lord! (Ps. 98:1-6, ESV)

However, it is not just joy and gladness that can be expressed in music and song, but grief and anguish as well. This is seen particularly in the book of Psalms where almost half of the Psalter is made up of psalms that are laments-either in whole or in part. The value of such laments, as Walter Brueggemann points out, is that they are completely honest about the fact that ‘our common experience is not one of well-being and equilibrium, but a churning disruptive experience of dislocation and relocation.’20 And the relevance of these Psalms to this study is that they, like the rest of the Psalter, were all intended to be sung-either by the congregation or by the Levitical choir.21

So, for example, Psalm 5-which begins: ‘Give ear to my words, O LORD; consider my groaning. Give attention to the sound of my cry’-is addressed to the Choirmaster and contains the instruction, ‘For the flutes’. Psalm 6-which begins: ‘O LORD, rebuke me not in your anger, nor discipline me in your wrath. Be gracious to me, O LORD, for I am languishing’-is likewise addressed to the Choirmaster with an instruction that it be played with stringed instruments. In fact, most of the better known lament psalms-like Psalm 13, Psalm 22, Psalm 42, Psalm 51, Psalm 69 and Psalm 88-are all addressed ‘to the Choirmaster’.

However, the members of the temple congregation were far from passive spectators. They were not simply sung to by the choir. As John Kleinig in his study of the place of choral music in Chronicles points out: ‘The choir addressed them directly and invited them to join in its praise (1 Chron. 16:8-13). The congregation did so by responding with certain stereotyped words and refrains (1 Chron. 16:36b). It thereby became an active partner in praise.’22

The obvious point to be made from this is that the people of Israel were encouraged and instructed to sing not only in their times of joy, but also in their times of grief. And the importance of lament (that is, of vocalizing grief in song) is that it helps to facilitate the transition from ‘disorientation’ to ‘reorientation’ (or ‘dislocation’ to ‘relocation’), to use Brueggeman’s parallel terms. In other words, lament is productive-or, at least, it ought to be. The purpose of expressing our fears and failures, our darkness and distress, and particularly doing so in song, is to help us process our emotional pain and so bring us to a point of praise. This is clear not only from the shape of numerous individual Psalms which begin with lament and end with praise (e.g., Pss. 3-7), but from the shape of the entire Psalter-with the laments dominating the earlier books and the praises dominating more and more in the latter books, particularly in the final five Psalms (Pss. 146-150).23

So there is much for us to learn here. Karl Kuhn focuses the chief lesson when he says: ‘As paradigms of faith and piety, the Psalms champion the affective dimension of devotion to and trust in God as elicited by the story of God’s care for Israel.’24 And my point is that this ‘affective dimension’ to authentic faith is, quite intentionally and by divine design, linked to music and song.

3.2. The New Testament

When we come to the New Testament, the first thing to note is the emotional dimension of the Spirit’s fruit and the Spirit’s role, therefore, in bringing us to emotional maturity. That is, most (if not all) of the fruit of the Spirit listed by Paul in Galatians 5, whilst clearly not being exclusively emotional in nature, and profoundly practical and relational in their outworking, nonetheless have an irreducible emotional component to them.25 Furthermore, learning to bear such fruit is part and parcel of the process of being transformed into the likeness of Christ (2 Cor. 3:18) or growing up into Christ (Eph. 4:15). And this clearly involves growing up emotionally as part of the package.26 Jeremy Begbie puts the point well: ‘Through the Spirit, we are given the priceless opportunity of-to put it simply-growing up emotionally: having our emotions purged of sin and stretched, shaped, and reshaped.’27

But does this have anything to do with music and song? Begbie certainly thinks so. In fact, he immediately follows the preceding statement with this one: ‘It is perhaps in worship and prayer, when we engage with God directly and consciously, that this will be (or ought to be) most evident.’28 In a more recent essay he makes his thought even more explicit: ‘[M]usic is particularly well suited to being a vehicle of emotional renewal in worship, a potent instrument through which the Holy Spirit can begin to remake and transform us in the likeness of Christ, the one true worshipper.’29

But the question for many is: Does the New Testament ever make this connection? I believe so. And the place where it does is Ephesians 5:18-21:

18 And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit, 19 addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, 20 giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, 21 submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ (Eph. 5:18-21, ESV).

Now a detailed exegesis of these verses will not be attempted here. For our purposes, the key issue turns on the relationship between the command in v. 18 (‘be filled with or by the Spirit’)30 and the five participles in vv. 19-21 (‘addressing’, ‘singing’, ‘making melody’, ‘giving thanks’ and ‘submitting’). It is commonly argued that these five participles are best understood as ‘result participles’.31 That is, when a church is filled by the Spirit these will be the results. This reading is certainly possible, both grammatically and theologically, and its implication-that singing is one of key indicators of a Spirit-filled church-has considerable historical support.32

However, I believe there is stronger case to be made for understanding the participles of vv. 19-21 as ‘means participles’; that is, Paul is here identifying the means by which he expects his readers to carry out his exhortation to be filled by the Spirit. What I am suggesting, then, is that, like the commands to ‘walk by the Spirit’ (Gal. 5:16) or to ‘let the word of Christ dwell in your richly’, being filled by the Spirit is not a matter of ‘letting go and letting God’, but (as v. 17 says) a matter of understanding the will of the Lord and then doing that will.33So Paul does not leave his readers to guess how his command is to be carried out. He spells it out in detail: we are to address one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, we are to sing and make melody to the Lord with our hearts,34 we are to give thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ and we are to submit to one another out of reverence for Christ. These are the means (according to this passage at least) by which the Spirit fills the church with the fullness of God in Christ (Eph. 3:19, 4:13).35

So to draw the obvious conclusion, singing and making music are vital means not only of addressing one another with the word of God (thereby edifying the church) and making melody to the Lord (thereby praising our Saviour), but of being filled with or by the Spirit and so growing up into Christ.36 And that (as I have suggested) includes coming to emotional maturity in Christ. As Jeremy Begbie expresses it: ‘To grow up into Christ is to grow up emotionally as much as anything else, and carefully chosen music in worship may have a larger part to play than we have yet imagined.’37

4. Soundings from the History of Christian Reflection

We now turn, finally, to take some quick soundings from the history of Christian reflection on these matters.

4.1. Cautious Concern

Firstly, let me give you two examples of ‘great ones’ who have expressed a ‘cautious concern’ about the power of music and song.

Augustine. In his famous Confessions, Augustine is not short of things to say about music and singing-and most of it is extremely positive. Indeed he claims that when sacred words are combined with pleasant music then, ‘our souls (animos) are moved and are more religiously and with a warmer devotion kindled to piety than if they are not so sung.’38 In other words, Augustine recognised and appreciated that when our emotions are moved by a song, the effect is not only felt in a warmer heart, but also expressed in an enhanced desire to please God. He continues:

When I remember the tears which I poured out at the time when I was first recovering my faith, and that now I am moved not by the chant but by the words being sung, when they are sung with a clear voice and entirely appropriate modulation, then again I recognize the great utility of music in worship.39

At the same time Augustine was reluctant to give singing his unqualified blessing. Indeed he claimed to ‘fluctuate between the danger of pleasure and the experience of the beneficent effect’ of singing.40He was particularly concerned about the danger of being so carried along by the music of the song that he would become impervious to the words being sung. Here is what he says: ‘Yet when it happens to me that the music moves me more than the subject of the song, I confess myself to commit a sin deserving of punishment, and then I would prefer not to have heard the singer.’41

John Calvin. The same kind of ambivalence appears in John Calvin. On the one hand, Calvin readily acknowledged the value of singing the Psalms (and also some of the Bible’s other songs), for the reason that they ‘stimulate us to raise our hearts to God and arouse us to an ardour in invoking as well as in exalting with praises, the glory of his name.’42Indeed, in his 1537 Articles Concerning the Organisation of the Church, he makes the singing of Psalms obligatory!43 On the other hand, he too was qualified in his endorsement of singing. His reason for caution is that ‘music has a secret and incredible power to move our hearts. When evil words are accompanied by music, they penetrate more deeply and the poison enters as wine through a funnel into a vat.’44

Admittedly, Calvin’s primary concern here is with ‘evil words’-that is, untruth-and so presumably he would not object to hearts being moved by the truth. But even when the words are good we are not out of danger. For, like Augustine, Calvin warns: ‘We should be very careful that our ears be not more attentive to the melody than our minds to the spiritual meaning of the words.’45 For this reason, Calvin also has a concern about the intentions and purposes of both those who write songs and those who choose them, and likewise how and why they are sung. It is this concern that lies behind his comment that the singing of songs is a ‘most holy and salutary practice’ when it is done properly, but ‘such songs as have been composed only for sweetness and delight of the ear are unbecoming to the majesty of the church and cannot but displease God in the highest degree.’46

4.2. Enthusiastic Embrace

Others, however, have been considerably more enthusiastic about the benefits of music and singing, and significantly less nervous about its dangers.

Martin Luther. Luther was a great lover of music and himself an accomplished musician. He was also greatly appreciative of music’s capacity to produce a variety of emotional dispositions. As he says:

Next to the Word of God, music deserves the highest praise. She is a mistress and governess of those human emotions [ . . . ] which control men or more often overwhelm them [ . . . ] Whether you wish to comfort the sad, to subdue frivolity, to encourage the despairing, to humble the proud, to calm the passionate or to appease those full of hate [ . . . ] what more effective means than music could you find.47

However, it was not music in itself that was Luther’s primary interest, but music as a vehicle for praising God and proclaiming his word. In other words, in Luther’s estimation singing is ‘word ministry’, and although not a substitute for the preached word, it is a complement to the preached word and a form of word ministry with added emotional power.

Music is a vehicle for proclaiming the Word of God [ . . . T]he gift of language combined with the gift of song was only given to man to let him know that he should praise God with both word and music, namely, by proclaiming [God’s word] through music and by providing sweet melodies with words.48

In fact, in Luther’s estimation, music was so important to life in general and to ministry in particular, that he did not believe that one should become a teacher or a preacher without some musical skill. To quote:

I always love music; who so has skill in this art, is of a good temperament, fitted for all things. We must teach music in schools; a schoolmaster ought to have skill in music, or I would not regard him. Neither should we ordain young men as preachers, unless they have been well exercised in music.49

Jonathan Edwards. As is well known Edwards had a very high regard for singing, believing that, ‘Tis plain from the Scripture that it is the tendency of true grace to cause persons very much to delight in such religious exercises.’50Not surprisingly, Edwards often preached on singing, and in a sermon on Colossians 3:16, argued that ‘the ends of it are two: to excite religious and holy affection, and secondly to manifest it.’51 In his Treatise Concerning Religious Affections, Edwards expands on these points as follows:

[T]he duty of singing praises to God, seems to be appointed wholly to excite and express religious affections. No other reason can be assigned, why we should express ourselves to God in verse, rather than in prose, and do it with music, but only, that such is our nature and frame, that these things have a tendency to move our affections.52

Now it must be said (and has often been pointed out) that Edwards’s idea of affections should not be equated with modern concepts of emotions (particularly the non-cognitive variety). However, it is a mistake to think that Edwards’s understanding of the affections excludes an emotional dimension. To the contrary, true affection, for Edwards, has a necessary emotional component. On this point Edwards is crystal clear: ‘There is a distinction to be made between a mere notional understanding, wherein the mind only beholds things in the exercise of a speculative faculty; and thesense of the heart, wherein the mind don’t [sic] only speculate and behold, but relishes and feels.’53

So to return to the key point: the purpose of singing, in Edwards’s estimation, is to excite and express such affections.

5. Conclusions

What conclusions should be drawn from this study? I am tempted simply to say ‘those who have ears to hear, let them hear.’ But I should probably say a little more about the implications of all this for personal growth and for implications for church life.

5.1. Implications for Personal Growth

On the personal front, let me say this: If music and singing are important to you (particularly singing to and of the Lord) and if you find they not only bring you joy but also great comfort, then you are not alone. In fact, you stand in a long line of saints who share the same sense of gratitude for such gifts and abilities and have experienced the same sense of release and reorientation that comes through singing the word of God. This is normal. This is healthy. This is scriptural. This is good.

Now, of course, we are not all the same. We have different bodies, different brains, different personalities and differing emotional responses to most things. What is more, we have different musical tastes. But my encouragement to one and all (but particularly to those who see themselves as ‘musically challenged’) is to make the best use you can of the gifts of music that God has either given to you, or placed around you. And, in particular, learn to use the voice that God has given you, to sing to him and of him. Luther’s encouragement on this score is worth heeding:

Music is one of the best arts; the notes give life to the text; it expels melancholy, as we see in king Saul. Kings and princes ought to maintain music, for great potentates and rulers should protect good and liberal arts and laws; though private people have desire thereunto and love it, yet their ability is not adequate. We read in the Bible, that the good and godly kings maintained and paid singers. Music is the best solace for a sad and sorrowful mind; by it the heart is refreshed and settled again in peace.54

In short, we should recognize the good gift that God has given us to nourish our emotional health and be open to Jeremy Begbie’s thought that music and singing may need to play a larger part in your Christian growth that you have hitherto allowed or imagined. It is one of the means that God has provided and that the Holy Spirit uses to help make us people who feel and respond in ways that please him.55

5.2. Implications for Church Life

In terms of the implications for church life, it should be clear that music and singing whilst not of the esse (i.e., essence or being) of the church are vital for the beneesse (i.e., the health or well-being) of the church. So we would be foolish to neglect them-particularly when Scripture commends them so strongly. At the same time we must also be careful to protect them-for there is always the possibility of misusing music and song. As Jeremy Begbie astutely observes: ‘If the orientation is askew, or the emotion inappropriate, then manipulation, sentimentality, and emotional self-indulgence are among the ever-present dangers.’56

But these dangers can be avoided and, indeed, must be avoided so that as we sing the living and life-giving word of God, music and song can fulfil their divinely appointed office of reintegrating and reorienting us both personally and corporately, binding us together in prayer and praise to God and drawing us out of ourselves and toward each other in genuine love and sympathy.57

Voltaire supposedly once made a remark along the lines that ‘if it’s too silly to be said it can always be sung’-and no doubt examples could be multiplied to illustrate the validity of this observation. But if the thrust of my argument in this essay is correct, then I think we can and must say this: if it is important enough to be said, then it could (and in the right manner, time and place should) also be sung. Why? Because singing helps us to process and express not only the cognitive dimensions of truth but also the emotive dimensions as well. Such are the God-ordained connections between music, singing and the emotions.

[1] O. Sacks, Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain (London: Picador, 2007), 298.

[2] For a useful and informed discussion of the debate between cognitive and non-cognitive theories of emotion see M. Elliott, Faithful Feelings: Emotion in the New Testament (Leicester: IVP, 2005) pp. 18-42.

[3] For those interested, a detailed survey can be found in D. A. Foxvog & A. D. Kilmer, ‘Music’ in G.W. Bromiley et al. (eds.), The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, vol. 3, (Grand Rapids: Michigan, 1986), pp. 436-449.

[4] To my mind, the most accessible treatment of the history of Christian music can be found in A. Wilson-Dickson, The Story of Christian Music: From Gregorian Chant to Black Gospel, An Authoritative Illustrated Guide to All the Major Traditions of Music for Worship (Oxford: Lion, 1992).

[5] S. Davies, ‘Artistic Expression and the Hard Case of Pure Music’, in M. Kieren (ed), Contemporary Debates in Aesthetics and the Philosophy of Art (Oxford: Blackwell, 2006), pp. 179-91.

[6] Ibid., p. 181.

[7] Ibid., p. 182.

[8] J. S. Begbie, ‘Faithful Feelings’ in J. S. Begbie & S. R. Guthrie (eds.) Resonant Witness: Conversations between Music and Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011), p. 339.

[9] L. Heslet, ‘Our Musical Brain’, p. 5, at <>, accessed 12/9/11.

[10] R. McClellan, The Healing Forces of Music: History, Theory, and Practice., Inc, 2000, p. 146.

[11] G. F. Welch, ‘Singing as Communication’ in Musical Communication (eds. D. Miell, R. A. R. MacDonald & D. J. Hargreaves). Oxford: OUP, 2005, p. 245.

[12] I. Titze, Principles of Voice Production. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1994.

[13] K. R. Scherer, ‘Expression of Emotion in Voice and Music’ in Journal of Voice 9:3, pp. 235-248.

[14] G. F. Welch, ‘Singing as Communication’, p. 247.

[15] E. Özdemir, A. Norton& G. Schlaug, ‘Shared and Distinct Neural Correlates of Singing and Speaking’ in Neuroimage 33 (2006), p. 633.

[16] J. I. Durham, Exodus, (WBC 3; Waco: Word, 1987), p. 210. Emphasis original.

[17] Ibid., p. 210.

[18] B. G. Webb, The Message of Isaiah (Leicester: IVP, 1996), p. 77.

[19] J. A. Motyer, in his commentary on these verses, helpfully speaks of the phenomenon of song as ‘an inner welling up of joy.’ See J. A. Motyer, The Prophecy of Isaiah (Leicester: IVP, 1993), p. 129.

[20] W. Brueggemann, Praying the Psalms: Engaging Scripture and the Life of the Spirit (Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 22007), p. 7.

[21] B. W. Anderson, Out of the Depths: The Psalms Speak for Us Today (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1983), p. 32.

[22] J. W. Kleinig, The Lord’s Song: The Basis, Function, and Significance of Choral Music in Chronicles (Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1993), p. 95.

[23] W. McConnell, ‘Worship’ in T. Longman III & P. Enns (eds.), Dictionary of the Old Testament: Wisdom, Poetry & Writings (Downers Grove: IVP, 2008), p. 931. This general movement, from lament to praise, would seem to be a function of the way the Psalter has been structured to follow the historical progression of Israelite kingship, beginning with David’s experience of persecution in the time of Saul (Book I) and ending with the post-exilic hope of redeemed existence under a new Davidic king (Book V). For an insightful discussion of the purpose and shape of the Psalter, which pays particular attention to the structural significance of the kingship theme, see A.E. Hill and J.H. Walton, A Survey of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000), pp. 346-351.

[24] K. A. Kuhn, The Heart of Biblical Narrative: Rediscovering Biblical Appeal to the Emotions (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2009), p. 9

[25] R. C. Roberts, Spirituality and Human Emotions (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans), 1982, p. 12. Matthew Elliott makes this point strongly in his study of joy in the New Testament. Indeed he laments the either/or approach of those who see joy as either essentially cognitive or essentially emotional, speaking of its ‘essential cognitive emotional nature’ (M. Elliott, Faithful Feelings, p. 181).

[26] J. S. Begbie, ‘Faithful Feelings’, p. 353.

[27] J. S. Begbie, Resounding Truth, p. 303.

[28] Ibid, p. 303.

[29] J. S. Begbie, ‘Faithful Feelings’, p. 353.

[30] Paul’s language suggests that the Spirit is the instrument of filling rather than as the content of the filling. For the grammatical arguments that lead to this conclusion see H. W. Hoehner, Ephesians: An Exegetical Commentary (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2002), p. 703; P. T. O’Brien, The Letter to the Ephesians (Leicester: Apollos, 1999), pp. 391-393.

[31] See, for example, the arguments listed by O’Brien, Ephesians, p. 387, n. 107.

[32] Grammatically, either a ‘means’ reading or a ‘result’ reading is possible. Interestingly, Daniel Wallace rejects the ‘means’ reading on theological grounds. He believes ‘it would be almost inconceivable to see this text suggesting that the way in which one is to be Spirit-filled is by a five-step, partially mechanical formula!’ (D. B. Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996], p. 639). However, this is not only a caricature of the ‘means’ reading (for the participles are neither a formula nor are they mechanical) but also begs the question, Why is such a reading more inconceivable than his own suggestion that the participles provide ‘the way in which one measures his/her success in fulfilling the command of 5:18’ (p. 639)?

[33] Indeed the means reading of Ephesians 5:18-21 is strengthened by a comparison with Colossians 3:16, where singing is clearly the means by which the word of Christ richly indwells the church (see P. T. O’Brien, Colossians, Philemon [WBC 44; Waco: Word, 1982], p. 208. For to be indwelt by the word of Christ (both personally and corporately) is not a different experience from being ‘filled by the Spirit’; Christ’s person is not separate from his word, nor is he separate from his Spirit. Indeed it is by the Spirit that Christ himself dwells in our hearts through faith (Eph. 3:17). Therefore, as we sing to the word of Christ to one another, ‘with gratitude in our hearts to God,’ we are not only instructed and made wise, but we have a greater experience as a community of what it means to be filled full in Christ, in whom ‘the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily’ (Col. 2:9-10).

[34] As Andrew Lincoln rightly points out, the ‘heart’ refers to the believer’s ‘innermost being [ . . . ] where the Spirit himself resides (cf. 3:16, 17, where the Spirit in the inner person is equivalent to Christ in the heart)’ (see A. T. Lincoln, Ephesians [WBC 42; Waco: Word, 1990], p. 346).

[35] As Timothy Gombis puts it: ‘The church is to be the temple of God, the fullness of Christ by the Spirit by being the community that speaks God’s word to one another, sings praises to the Lord, renders thanksgiving to God for all things in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, and lives in relationships characterized by mutual submission.’ T. G. Gombis, ‘Being the Fullness of God in Christ by the Spirit: Ephesians 5:18 in its Epistolary Setting’ (TynB 53.2, 2002), p. 271. Emphasis original.

[36] See further, R. Smith, ‘Psalms, Hymns and Spiritual Songs: What are They and Why Sing Them?’ (CASE 23, 2010), pp. 26-29.

[37] J. S. Begbie, ‘Faithful Feelings’, p. 353.

[38] Augustine, Confessions, X, xxxiii. 49 (trans. Henry Chadwick; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), p. 207.

[39] Augustine, Confessions, X, xxxiii, 50, p. 208.

[40] Augustine, Confessions, X, xxxiii, 50, p. 208.

[41] Augustine, Confessions, X, xxxiii, 50, p. 208.

[42] J. Calvin, Articles for the Organisation of the Church (1537), cited in Charles Garside, Jr. ‘The Origins of Calvin’s Theology of Music: 1536-1543’ in Transactions of the American Philosophical Society (69:4, 1979), p.10.

[43] R. W. Holder, John Calvin and the Grounding of Interpretation: Calvin’s First Commentaries (Leiden: Brill, 2006), p. 256.

[44] Cited in H. R. Van Til, The Calvinist Concept of Culture (Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishers, 1972), p. 110.

[45] J. Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book III, XX, 32 (ed. John T. McNeill; trans. Ford Lewis Battles; Philadelphia: Westminster, 1960), p. 895.

[46] J. Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book III, XX, 32, p. 896.

[47] M. Luther, ‘Preface to Georg Rhau’s Symphonoiaeiucundae’ (1538) in J. Pelikan & H. T. Lehmann (eds.), Luther’s Works (55 vols.; trans. C. M. Jacobs; rev. E. W. Gritsch; Saint Louis/Philadelphia: Concordia/Fortress, 1955-86, vol. 53), p. 323.

[48] M. Luther, ‘Preface to Georg Rhau’s Symphonoiaeiucundae’ (1538), pp. 321, 323-324.

49 M. Luther, The Table Talk of Martin Luther (trans. and ed. William Hazlitt; London: H. G. Bohn, 1857), p. 340.

[50] J. Edwards, ‘A Treatise Concerning Religious Affections,’ in Works of Jonathan Edwards (ed. E. Hickman; Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 31974, Vol. 1), p. 255.

[51] J. Edwards, ‘398. Col. 3:16,’ in Sermons, Series II, 1736 in Works of Jonathan Edwards Online Vol. 51 (ed. Jonathan Edwards Center; Jonathan Edwards Center at Yale University) at< >, accessed 12/9/11.

[52] Edwards, ‘Religious Affections,’ p. 242. Emphasis original. Edwards defines ‘affections’ as ‘the more vigorous and sensible exercises of the inclination and will of the soul’ (p. 237). Emphasis original.

[53] Edwards, ‘Religious Affections,’ p. 283. Emphasis original.

[54] M. Luther, The Table Talk of Martin Luther, pp. 340-341.

[55] S. Guthrie, ‘Singing in the Body and in the Spirit’ (JETS46/4; December 2003), p. 643.

[56] J. Begbie, ‘Faithful Feelings’, p. 353.

[57] Stephen Guthrie puts it like this: ‘Music, of course, does not remake us; the Holy Spirit does. But it seems possible that music may be one means by which the Holy Spirit makes us people who feel and respond. We are brought to our senses. We are drawn out of the darkness of self-absorption and become aware of the world around us, our place within and responsibility to it. In song we move in a dance of sympathy with the others who are singing, and by the body are drawn out of ourselves and into the Body.’ S. Guthrie, ‘Singing in the Body and in the Spirit’, p. 643.

Robert S. Smith

Rob Smith is lecturer in theology, ethics & music ministry at Sydney Missionary Bible College in Sydney, Australia, and serves as Ethics and Pastoralia book reviews editor for Themelios.

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