Monday, March 4, 2013

What Is Good Music?

A friend of mine in seminary had a professor ask his class to come up with a working definition of "good music."

Do you know how hard of a task that is?  Think about it for a minute.

Good.  Music.

Here's what I came up with:

"Good" music in its simplest form is music that brings glory to God either intentionally or even unintentionally.

And by bringing glory to God, I mean that God receives dominant attention. Not the singer, and not even the style, should compete with whatever attribute of God is inscribed in the music.

For the music to meet this incredibly high ideal, it must therefore exhibit certain characteristics, such as an orderly mathematical meter, a coherent text (if text is included), and an aural signature that is commensurate with the aspect of God being either overtly or even incidentally referenced.

Heathen unbelievers can therefore write good music, however unintentionally. And redeemed saints can write bad music.

Nevertheless, God always looks at the heart!

In other words, God created all things for, ultimately, His glory.  Including music.  Many styles and genres of music exist today, from primitive jungle songs to massive orchestrations of oratorios and symphonies.  But I think my definition - while not perfect - helps to put it all into perspective.

From heavy metal rock to Christian pop and Ukrainian folk tunes, and everything in between, this definition can act as the sieve through which the bad music sifts through like salt, and leaves the gems that really constitute good music.  No matter the type or style, we should be able to identify music as "good" as being music that glorifies some attribute of God's character, whether the composer of that music intended for it to glorify God or not.


Now, I realize that by now, you're sputtering that my definition is to exclusive because it only relates to church music.  Except... it really doesn't, does it?  Not all music written for worship is good, and not all music written for the populist heathen masses is bad.  And to prove it, here are just a few improbable examples of what I'd consider "good" music:
  • The Stripper, by David Rose in 1958:  Although conceived as a bawdy burlesque tune, and usually played as such, The Stripper actually expressly stipulates no sinful behavior (thanks mostly to its lack of words), since a husband or wife could perform a striptease in front of their spouse for their mutual pleasure and it be a perfectly wholesome event.  After all, a spouse can't lust after their spouse, can they?  As the creator of sex, God receives glory when this music is held in its moral context (even if the David Rose Orchestra fully intended for it to be sexually explicit in a sinful way).  It upholds the other qualifications of "good" music in a timeless and good-natured way.  Only sexually sinful thoughts corrupt its character.
  • My Girl, by The Temptations in 1964:  Sure, it's a trippy, frolicking love song, but it's buoyant in a credible sort of way, and describes how much more important personal relationships are than material things.  Nothing in the lyrics deny the deity and holiness of God, and they match the happy tune by effectively describing an emotion that people across the globe can recognize and appreciate. 
  • City of New Orleans, by Willie Nelson in 1970:  Although this song is set in a train, it could also be about the actual city of New Orleans, at least in terms of the ultimate futility of man's ambition and sense of purpose.  While the song itself does not explicitly point to Christ as the purpose for living, it does a good job of eliminating just about everything else we use as idols or substitutions for Christ in our lives.  While I personally do not care for country/western music, I can't deny that the song's melody is strong and is appropriate for the message it's attempting to convey.

Whether any of these songs are great, universally-appreciated music, however, and whether people will still be interested in hearing them 200 years from now, becomes an even bigger topic of opinion.  We won't go there here.

But still...

Can you rack your brain and come up with any songs that an unbiased listener could use to disprove my description?  Seriously - that's a real question.  If you can come up with any, please post your comments below.  By the way, unless you tell me your name, or post using a Google account, I have no way of knowing the identity of the person giving me feedback.  So please be as blunt as you like!

Just remember that "popular" does not necessarily equate to "good."  Our society has proven that lots of people willingly listen to lots of junk.

Whether society is following culture in that regard, or culture is following society, it means that less "good" music is being produced these days.

Over that, I doubt any of us can argue.


  1. It seems to me that recently there have been more non-Christians creating "good" music that unintentionally reflect God's glory and beauty, than Christians who intentionally try to reflect God's glory. When did the shift from Christians creating "good" music that glorifies God (Bach, Handel, Brahms, etc.) to non-Christians creating "good" music that unintentionally glorify God?

    1. That's another good question, Andrew... perhaps when "Christian" artists figured they could earn more money as "crossover" artists?

      You'd know better than I do, but the Getty's are about it these days, aren't they?

      I sure am tired of singing so much John Rutter stuff, that's for sure! Thanks for the feedback!


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