Why Music Opens Hearts and Minds

Why Music Opens Hearts and Minds June 10, 2021

The late Rich Mullins wrote a lot of songs that changed people’s lives and shaped their faith. But one song in particular has a reputation for grabbing the attention of unwary listeners and has even been known to convert souls. In “If I Stand,” Rich sings: “There’s more that rises in the morning than the sun, and more that shines in the night than just the moon. There’s more than just this fire here that keeps me warm, in a shelter that is larger than this room. And there’s a loyalty that’s deeper than mere sentiment, and a music higher than the songs that I can sing.”

The point of the song is simple: there’s much more going on in this world than just the material facts—more than atoms and energy. We live in a cosmic temple bursting with immaterial meaning, with invisible essences, with symbols and truths laid out in plain view for keen image-bearers to see. Or to hear.

Recently I had the privilege of interviewing the lead members of one of my favorite bands, The Arcadian Wild. We were face-to-face at the Wilberforce Weekend in Dallas-Fort Worth the day after they gave a predictably superb performance for our conference attendees. I asked Lincoln Mick and Isaac Horn what they think it is about music that gives it this unique power to arrest our minds and hearts, and make us vividly aware of the immaterial meaning built into human life and creation.

They told me that music is “ingrained in the fabric of the world” in a way that precedes the very first song any musician ever wrote. In that sense, it is a universal language, accessible to and in some measure understood by all. Where human tongues separate, music possesses a strange and wonderful power to unite. And it does this by laying open the ineffable mysteries of God’s world—by testifying that there is, indeed, more that rises in the morning than the sun.

Isaac pointed specifically the music’s close connection with our emotions—the audible “color palette” as he called it, whose hues we can hear in the lilt of a violin, the laughter of a mandolin, the deep and manly conversation of a guitar. Each of these can evoke emotions—joy, contentment, melancholy, dereliction, longing. Even more, their undeniable reminder of the immaterial pries our hearts open to the surgical touch of well-written lyrics.

We don’t possess the original musical notation for the Psalms. We can guess what they sounded like, but for the most part, God left us to fill in the notes. It’s telling, however, that he preserved the lyrics. This collection of voiceless songs that invite the church of every age to arrange and sing them anew comprise the longest book of the Bible. Spanning the full breadth of human emotion and experience, the Psalter is special revelation for every moment of our lives. Yet the fact that God so prized these words that he delights in seeing them set to melody after new melody in no way diminishes the importance of the notes we use.

God reveals his plan of salvation using words, and even names himself in the second person “the Word.” But music’s close relationship to lyrical truth—and its penchant for preparing the way for that truth—reminds me of a voice who once cried in the wilderness before the coming of the Word made flesh.

Music, this purest form of natural revelation, brooks no argument. It summons tears to our eyes or a smile to our lips unbidden and almost irresistibly. In classical education, it forms one of the Quadrivium, the four disciplines applying mathematics to time and space. It is the audible order of creation, wondrous in its unnecessary beauty and uncanny in its skill at catching sinners off guard. And ever the loyal handmaid of God’s Word, it reminds us stubbornly of the universe of meaning behind the visible world, and in doing so opens us again to the truth our minds often forget, but our ears never do.

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