There are always discussions of the ‘spirituality’ of abstract musical devices or style in Christians circles. Some say a sound or rhythmic beat has the anointing of God or smells of hell. I disagree. Abstract music is amoral. No instrument, chord, cadence, pulse, or device is good or evil. It is the message conveyed that is good or evil.
However, we must understand that we communicate with music on many levels. There is the verbal level of sung lyrics. There is the pulse of the beat and, more importantly, the variation in the pulse. Increasing the tempo gives one emotional cue and slowing it down gives another cue. A raspy jazz singer conjures different mental images than an operatic soprano. Cadential elision can give the listener the feeling longing.
The most significant way abstract music communicates, however, is with the context that we place on the sound from our own story line. Here is an example from my own life.
In late 1999 Heather, my oldest daughter, developed a significant deep-vein thrombosis. The clot was half the length of her leg. Although she recovered, it was very serious. I looked down at my little girl in the hospital room and I was terrified beyond words. Suddenly, I started hearing this melodic riff in my head that was almost loud enough to hurt. I knew it was from the Romantic period but I could not remember its original source. All I could remember at the time is that it the melody you often hear when the villain is tying the girl to the train tracks. It was only later that I remembered it was Erlkonig by Goethe and set to music Schubert that I heard once during undergrad school. My subconscious had conjured up that melody to express the horror I was feeling looking down at my daughter who I expected to die.
Read this translation of the Goethe’ words and listen to the musical link below it.
Who rides, so late, through night and wind?
It is the father with his child.
He has the boy well in his arm
He holds him safely, he keeps him warm.
“My son, why do you hide your face so anxiously?”
“Father, do you not see the Elfking?
The Elfking with crown and tail?”
“My son, it’s a wisp of fog.”
“You dear child, come, go with me!
Very lovely games I’ll play with you;
Some colourful flowers are on the beach,
My mother has some golden robes.”
“My father, my father, and don’t you hear
What the Elfking quietly promises me?”
“Be calm, stay calm, my child;
The wind is rustling through withered leaves.”
“Do you want to come with me, pretty boy?
My daughters shall wait on you finely;
My daughters will lead the nightly dance,
And rock and dance and sing you to sleep.”
“My father, my father, and don’t you see there
The Elfking’s daughters in the gloomy place?”
“My son, my son, I see it clearly:
There shimmer the old willows so grey.”
“I love you, your beautiful form entices me;
And if you’re not willing, then I will use force.”
“My father, my father, he’s grabbing me now!
The Elfking has done me harm!”
It horrifies the father; he swiftly rides on,
He holds the moaning child in his arms,
Reaches the farm with trouble and hardship;
In his arms, the child was dead.
Listen to Erlkonig
All of this was being churned non-verbally in me. Weeks later I pondered the strange experience and mediated on how it was vaguely similar to the groaning we send up to the Lord in our times of need. It starts with a painful groan and often morph into priase. So, as a musical experiment, I took the painful melodic motif and weaved it into my musical prayer below for piano and trumpet.
Listen to Musical Prayer
— Donnie Bryson