The last notes of the Sanctus from the early seventeenth-century English composer William Byrd’s Mass for Four Voices faded into silence. Turning the CD player off, I sat down in front of about 20 college students. For many, this was their first attentive hearing of renaissance polyphony.

“So, what do you think?” I asked them.

A hand raised at the back of the classroom.

“I found it kinda’ boring.”

“Ok, but should you have?” I responded.

“What do you mean?” my student asked incredulously. “It’s just my opinion.”

“I understand, but is your opinion correct?”

Her brows furled: “It’s music. There is no correct answer. It’s all a matter of opinion.”

Musical Relativism

The musical perspective that dominates our age is what we might call the relativist view. The relativist view sees music as entirely personal; there is no objective basis for determining whether one kind or form of music is ‘better’ than another. Music is simply a matter of subjective taste and personal preference, and bears no resemblance at all to the categories that lend themselves to objective evaluation, such as mathematics and the sciences.

This view is profoundly flawed. It is inextricably linked to a consumerist mentality that reduces music to mere commodity, which is appropriated as a prepackaged formula that serves mass utility goals through global distribution channels. The life expectancy of a song in this cultural context is brief, the average radio lifespan being no more than a few months. Indeed, a study was released recently that suggested playing a chart hit for more than four months may affect adversely the ratings of a radio station.[1] This sonic commodification stands in stark contrast to the music of many other cultures outside the West, some of which celebrate tunes and melodies that have lasted for over a thousand years.

Unfortunately, despite its rich musical tradition, this relativism has not passed over the church. A particularly striking example comes from Rick Warren. In his 1995 mega-hit, The Purpose Driven Church, he writes:

I reject the idea that music styles can be judged as either ‘good’ or ‘bad’ music. Who decides this? The kind of music you like is determined by your background and culture … Churches also need to admit that no particular style of music is ‘sacred.’ What makes a song sacred is its message. Music is nothing more than an arrangement of notes and rhythms; it’s the words that make a song spiritual.[2]

 According to a 2005 Barna survey of American pastors, The Purpose Driven Church was cited as the second most influential book in their lives.[3]

One needs to look no farther than our institutions of Christian education to see how pervasive this relativistic view of music has become. I have found that students at both the Christian school and university where I teach, when called to give a basic account for the classical conception of art and beauty, the answers to my inquiries consistently exemplify a complete and total devotion to aesthetic relativism. I am not exaggerating in the least.

This suggests to me that while we have put much thought into teaching Truth and Goodness particularly in our classical schools, we have done so at the expense of teaching Beauty, and I am very concerned that our educational efforts are in fact being undermined by a ubiquitous relativism coming through the back door. Truth, Goodness, and Beauty are not sequestered from one another – they need each other and they are implied in one another. And if Beauty is robbed of its transcendent nature and relocated solely to cultural and private psychological processes, then Truth and Goodness are sure to follow.

In our next post, we will discover the origin of this musical relativism and contrast it with the Hebraic vision of music. Until then, do you see a connection between aesthetic relativism and moral relativism? How may you have been adversely affected by musical relativism?

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[1] http://www.radioanalyzer.com/overplaying_songs_is_dangerous_business.pdf.

[2] ­The Purpose Driven Church: Growth without Compromising Your Message and Mission (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1995), 281.

[3] https://www.barna.org/barna-update/article/5-barna-update/178-survey-reveals-the-books-and-authors-that-have-most-influenced-pastors#.VMtftWjF9yU.

Featured image credit: © 2006 Brian Fitzgerald, Flickr | CC-BY | via Wylio