If Socrates was a Worship Leader

I read something fascinating a few weeks ago. I was reading Plato’s Republic, a dialogue about governments and justice among the famous Greek philosopher Socrates and several of his companions. They are attempting to create a hypothetical republic that would be perfectly just, wise, and good. Socrates and his friend Glaucon discuss every aspect of the republic from its economy and government to its art and music. As Socrates and Glaucon discuss the kind of music they should allow in their republic, they have this very interesting exchange:

SOCRATES: At any rate, you can tell that a song or ode has three parts – the words, the melody, and the rhythm; that degree of knowledge I may presuppose?
GLAUCON: Yes; so much as that you may.
SOCRATES: And as for the words, there will surely be no difference between words which are and which are not set to music; both will conform to the same laws, and these have already been determined by us?
SOCRATES: And the melody and the rhythm will depend upon the words?
GLAUCON: Certainly.
SOCRATES: We were saying, when we spoke of the subject-matter, that we had no need of lamentation and strains of sorrow?
SOCRATES: And which are the harmonies expressive of sorrow? You are musical, and can tell me.
GLAUCON: The harmonies which you mean are the mixed or tenor Lydian, and the full-toned or bass Lydian and such like.
SOCRATES: These then must be banished; they are of no use, even to women who have a character to maintain, and much less to men.
GLAUCON: Certainly.
SOCRATES: In the next place, drunkenness and softness and indolence are utterly unbecoming the character of our guardians.
GLAUCON: Utterly unbecoming.
SOCRATES: And which are the soft or drinking harmonies?
GLAUCON: The Ionian and the Lydian; they are termed “relaxed.”

The discussion continues longer, but I think this will suffice. Socrates and Glaucon are onto something here; namely, that music affects us. Not just the lyrics, but the music itself. As Socrates says, they had already decided on what words would be allowed in art, and that would include lyrics. They are now concerned that the music, the melody, harmony, and rhythm, should correspond to the lyrics! In other words, the music should communicate the same message to our hearts that the lyrics communicate to our minds. Socrates and Glaucon want their guards to be bold and courageous, so they won’t let them listen to sorrowful music. They want their guards to be moderate, so they won’t allow music that encourages drunkenness and laziness.

Wait, hold on; music that encourages drunkenness and laziness? Does that seem strange to you? Remember, they are not talking about lyrics that encourage those things, but the actual music. Can music really affect us this way? I recently taught a series on music to our church. I asked if music can make us happy, and everyone agreed. I asked if music can make us sad, and again, everyone agreed. Then I asked if music can make us angry; some tentatively agreed, but most looked surprised by the question. But why couldn’t it make us angry? Why couldn’t music encourage us to drunkenness, laziness, or sensuality? Surely something as powerful as music does not have such a limited emotional range that it can only convey happiness or sadness.

I understand that some may ask, “Why should we care about what Socrates, a pagan Greek, has to say?” Fair enough, but it isn’t about Socrates; it’s about what he’s saying. We must be careful not to discount truth just because it comes from an unlikely source. We need to ask ourselves if what Socrates is saying about music is true. Does music really communicate a vast range of emotions? That’s really the question; if music does in fact influence our emotions, then it follows naturally that we must take care that our music does not influence our emotions in detrimental ways. Frankly, it seems bizarre to me that anyone would deny the powerful affect that music has. Does anyone truly claim that music doesn’t affect our emotions? One study found an interesting correlation between adolescents’ emotional state, and the music they chose to listen to. For example, 42% chose to listen to heavy metal when they are feeling rage, but 0% chose to listen to the same music when they were sad. 41% chose to listen to pop music when they were feeling enthusiastic, but only 13% when they were feeling rage. It seems clear that they chose to listen to music that communicate the emotions they were feeling at the time! (Rucsanda, Mădălina. “The Effect of Various Music Genres on the Adolescents’ Emotional State”, Bulletin of the Transilvania University of Braşov – Supplement Series VIII: Performing Arts  Vol. 8 No. 2 – 2015).

We have a few examples of this being played out in the Bible. David playing his harp for Saul comes to mind (I Samuel 16:23). Have you ever heard a harp?  They’re beautiful, relaxing instruments. It’s the aural equivalent of a spa day. It certainly influenced Saul! We clearly see that David’s music affected Saul’s emotions, and caused the evil spirit to depart. The same phenomenon takes a different form when the Israelites worship the golden calf in Exodus 32:17-18. Joshua describes the noise of their singing as “the noise of war in the camp.” The music used in worshipping their false God communicated the kinds of emotions that Joshua (no stranger to war) associated with battle.

I’m afraid we have forgotten a simple truth that Socrates and Glaucon knew: music exerts a powerful influence on our emotions. It can encourage bravery or cowardice. It can excite us or depress us. It can communicate anger and aggression, or reverence and thoughtfulness. Imagine how you feel when you hear the Imperial March in Star Wars: danger; power; it’s “bad guy” music. What do you feel when you hear the music at wedding? It probably makes you feel pensive and thoughtful. What about a basketball game? The music there is designed to get you pumped up and excited!

This is a very important truth to understand about music, because it should affect the kinds of music we listen to. For example, do you want to listen to music that encourages anger and violence when you are stuck in traffic on a Monday morning, about to spend eight hours with an obnoxious coworker? I can name many (Christian!) songs that I should not listen to because they encourage me towards pride and arrogance, sins which I’m predisposed toward anyways. It’s not the words of these songs that’s the issue; the words are good (if shallow) truths about God. The problem is the music communicates pride and arrogance.

It also has serious implications for the kind of music we choose for our worship services. Worship music shouldn’t be about how new or old a song is, what’s popular today, or how things were done 60 years ago. Worship music should be chosen based on the kind of music that best communicates the emotions appropriate for worshipping a holy God.
It is very important to understand that music communicates a vast range of emotions and desires to our hearts. As Christians, this should lead us to ask two questions, like Socrates did: what effects do we want our music to produce in our lives? What kind of music will help produce these effects? Both are important questions, and I hope to discuss them in future articles very soon. We will first look at what effects music should produce in a Christian’s life, and finally what kind of music will produce those effects.


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