Each day we make thousands of decisions. How fast should we drive? Do we need a rain jacket? Which album should we keep on repeat? We attempt to carefully discern and answer each question because we believe there will be either positive or negative consequences to our decisions.
As in all aspects of life, Christians have to decide whether or not particular music-listening choices bring us closer to being the person God has created us to be. These choices have become increasingly personal. We can each compile our own playlists, selecting from artists around the world, often without the knowledge of our family or community. Developing a personal method of music discernment and embedding helpful habits through practice equips us to engage with any music we encounter.
Discernment can be summarized as the ability to judge well. Through discernment, we seek to see how a song benefits our understanding of Jesus, ourselves, or the world around us. Christian artists, for example, can write music that we might choose to avoid. And humans who have turned away from God are still made in his image, with the ability to create music that helps us understand Jesus, ourselves, or the world around us.
A key component to discernment is being curious while delaying conclusions until we’ve spent time exploring the song and its impact on us. There is no formula for this process, but here are some things I consider as I attempt to understand a song better:
Emotion: How does the song make me feel? How do my emotions change while I’m listening to the song?
A large part of music is emotion, so it’s appropriate to observe how my mood changes over the course of the song. Often we think discernment is strictly an intellectual exercise only relevant to music with lyrics. But even instrumental music affects our emotions and needs to be acknowledged and discerned.
Impact: What do I still remember after the song has finished playing? What ideas or words are impacting me the most?
Unlike a painting or sculpture, a song only lasts a few minutes and then is gone, except for what remains in the memory of the listener. Is there a phrase or sound that keeps replaying in my mind? Exploring why I am focusing on a particular part of the song helps me unpack how I am being impacted by it.
Intent: What is the artist trying to accomplish by creating this song? What response is he or she hoping for from the listener?
Most artists hope to create a particular emotional response or add meaning to their work. Understanding the creator of the song and his or her intentions helps me understand the song. Did the artist want me to dance? Cry? Admire him? Get Angry? Buy more of her music? Interviews from the artists themselves can be somewhat helpful, however they don’t tell the whole story. Sometimes artists refrain from sharing their intent or bend the truth.
Interpretation: What does the song mean to me? How do my experiences shape this interpretation?
Since music is a form of communication, the audience has the choice in how a song is interpreted, creating an opportunity for one song to have multiple meanings. For example, a listener interprets the song “Summer of ‘69” by Bryan Adams through their personal experience of falling in love, summer nostalgia, or being in a band. A balance is needed between the artist’s intent and the listener’s understanding so that neither voice is overshadowed in the discernment process.
Once we have spent time curiously exploring the song, we can weigh the song alongside our beliefs, feelings, and context, discerning how best to respond to the song going forward. In his book Culture Making (IVP), Andy Crouch identifies four different responses Christians traditionally have had towards culture. He argues that all of these responses could be appropriate, and it is our job to discern the best response to a particular cultural object. He cautions that the danger emerges when our responses become habit and we begin to see all culture through one of these responses. Our choices when listening to a song are:
1. Condemn the song. Don’t listen to it again because there is a lack of musical quality, a harmful artist intent, or our response to the song is taking us further away from Jesus.
2. Critique the song. Actively listen to it again to learn about Jesus or the world. Even if we disagree with the mood or message, songs may still be able to teach us about the emotions and perspectives of others.
3. Copy the song. Musicians can go beyond listening by creating similar work. Identify specific aspects of it to copy in a more overtly Christian song. This usually means imitating the music and adding words that have more spiritual and Christian themes. The church has received criticism for doing a poor job of this response, with many citing cultural appropriation or blatant plagiarism. However, there are many instances where Christians have creatively imitated music to be more overtly Christian, in ways similar to all musicians who borrow from the canon of music that precedes them, shuffling various existing ideas into something creative and new.
4. Consume the song. Continue to listen it with little active discernment or thought. Enjoy the song without asking more questions.
Sometimes our beliefs, feelings, and context change. We may need to revisit the discernment process from time to time, potentially arriving at a different conclusion. Yet, we all benefit from developing a personal method of music discernment, forming habits that help us decide whether particular music brings us closer to—or further away from—Jesus.
We do not have to learn the habits of discernment in isolation. Two books provide helpful frameworks for Christian discernment; the aforementioned Culture Making by Andy Crouch andCreation Regained (Eerdmans) by Albert M. Wolters. Also, Calvin College will be hosting their excellent Festival of Faith and Music March 30-April 1, 2017. The Festival is filled with helpful resources and discerning conversations.