Music Theory: A Liberal Art in Chains

Ken Stephenson

Presented to the "Christian Scholarship Conference,"
The Ohio State University October 22, 1999
Columbus, Ohio

Thesis: After centuries at the core of all higher education in Christian Europe, music theory now receives no visible distinctively Christian input to the detriment of both Christian culture and music theory. The author calls for a return of Christian music theory through examination of Christian pieces, consideration of composers as human creations, application of theory to ethics, contemplation of acoustics, and reconnection of music to the rest of God's world.

It is indeed an honor to be on a program with such esteemed scholars from so many disparate fields. I realize the honor especially when I consider how obscure my field of music theory is compared with the other areas of study represented here. While most if not all of us present today could lend a somewhat informed voice to a discussion on special creation vs. evolution or the world–as–authorless–text vs. the world–as–indicative–creation–of–God, and while we all know the names Aristotle and Kant, Newton and Einstein, Smith and Keynes, Gibbon and Toynbee, Derrida and Foucault, and Lewis, Plantinga, Ross, and Noll, my guess is that the ideas of the greatest music theorists of history for instance, Guido of Arrezzo, Gioseffo Zarlino, Jean Rameau, Heinrich Shenker, and Allen Forte are less known (some of you may have heard of none of the five) much less the nature of the debate between Christian and secular music theory. The obscurity of music theory is somewhat difficult to explain. But it's easy to explain why no one here knows of the debate between Christian and secular theory: there isn't any debate.

The call for this conference announced as its theme the resistance Christian scholarship has met in the primarily secular academy. I wish to address an alternative question: Why is there no Christian scholarship in music theory? As an outline, I'll consider these three subquestions:

It was three or four years ago when I read the book that started me thinking about the topic: a book entitled Philosophers Who Believe, a collection of spiritual and intellectual autobiographies by eleven current Christian philosophers. Especially inspiring were the pieces by Nicholas Wolterstorff and Alvin Plantinga. Speaking of student days at Calvin College, Wolterstorff says,

I was plunged deep into the culture of the West its literature, its philosophy, its theology, its science; everything; nothing was off–limits. The challenge constantly placed before us was to struggle to understand this massive inheritance "in Christian perspective" . . . to interpret the world, culture and society in the light of Scripture. [pp. 268–69]

Nothing was off–limits, says Wolterstorff. Even music theory, I asked myself?

Speaking of the same days at the same college, Alvin Plantinga describes the conviction learned at Calvin that faith must have an impact on every academic pursuit.

[p. 56] There is no such thing [he says] as religiously neutral intellectual endeavor . . . . Serious intellectual work and religious allegiance . . . are inevitably intertwined . . . . [p. 78] And the closer the science in question is to what is distinctively human, the deeper the involvement.

What, I asked myself, could be more distinctively human than music?

I was shocked. Knowing that my faith should affect every area of my life, I understood how Jesus ought to infuse the ethics of my teaching and service to my school. By the grace of God, and of course except when I fail, I think that I am essentially a Christian professor: I fulfill my duties, I teach responsibly. I treat students fairly. I give grades justly. But these authors challenged me to center my research, my musical thinking, on God as well.

What would this even mean? What would the Christian premises of music theory be? God tells us He is the Source of nature, personality, morality, truth, language, history, and value. But He seems to credit Jubal with the invention of music, although God is occasionally depicted in the prophets as One who sings.

Yearning for an answer to this question, I read through all the books that all of you have probably read (if not written): George Marsden's The Soul of the American University and The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship, for instance, and Mark Noll's The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind. These books made my desires even stronger, but gave me no specific ideas about my obscure field. So I began to seek out other Christian professors of music theory around the country. (I really had no idea the internet would be such a blessing.) But I was surprised and disappointed to find that most of the Christian professors I contacted were mystified by my question, even if intrigued. "When it comes down to it," said one honestly, "I guess I teach 20th–century theory like any pagan." One suggested that since our cultural heritage was Christian, he thought our theory was already essentially Christian. Substituting the word "theory" with the word "politics" demonstrates how hasty that judgment is. While no one was hostile to my desire for a distinctly Christian music theory, I found only one professor who had ideas about what such a thing might look like. A previous participant in these conferences, Terry Ewell of West Virginia University suggested that as actions, the musical acts of composition, performance, and listening could be subject to Christian critique. Apart from this one glimmer, I found a total absence of the idea of or desire for Christian music theory. It seems that Christian scholarship in music theory is indeed an outrageous idea.

The situation is all the more disconcerting when we remember that music theory was in fact a Christian pursuit for hundreds of years in the middle ages in Europe. Music theory is one of the oldest fields of academic study known to us, a subject which, from antiquity, formed one of the seven liberal arts studied by every educated person in the West. By the admonition of Cassiodorus in the 6th century, who related the seven arts to Solomon's remark about the seven pillars of the house of wisdom (Prov. 9:1), and of the very influential Augustine, who advised, "Let every good and true Christian understand that wherever truth may be found, it belongs to his Master," the cathedral schools and, later, universities of medieval Europe adopted the ancients' curriculum as a means to understanding God and Scripture. All students started by studying the three arts of the trivium grammar, logic, and rhetoric and then proceeded to the four numerical arts of the quadrivium mathematics, geometry, astronomy, and music. As a result, music theory itself was considered a Christian study, appealing to other Christian truths as analogies or premises, and in turn was considered one of only seven foundational studies prerequisite to academic training in theology.

Medieval treatises on music theory are Christian in many senses. First we must mention the many references to Christian ideas and music that we would expect to find in writings from a time when Christianity formed the basis of common, everyday culture. Most medieval manuscripts, for instance, refer to Christian hymns and chants for all their examples. The treatise known as Anonymous IV in explaining the organ mentions that the instrument is referred to in what it calls "the prophecy": "with stringed instruments and the organ," it quotes. At one point, the Berkeley Manuscript says, "Let . . . Christ, the Son of God, say Amen' [to my teaching]." Robert Grosseteste, Bishop of Lincoln in the early 13th century, relates the harmony produced by two distinct notes with the "concord" produced by the Holy Spirit in two seemingly contradictory passages of Scripture. And Bartolomeo Ramis's Musica Practica tells us, "[I]n reading this material you are going to get a great deal of usefulness and pleasure, and as I said, you will give thanks to the Almighty God, dispenser of everything good, who created all the liberal arts for the perfection and delectation of many, to Whom is glory forever and ever, amen.

In some cases, the connections between Christianity and music have to do with ethics, law, and morality. Says Boethius in De institutione musica,

[M]usic is associated not only with speculation but with morality as well. For nothing is more characteristic of human nature than to be soothed by pleasant modes or disturbed by their opposites (Book I, chapter 1).

In many cases, the connection between music theory and theology was numerical. For instance, in virtually all theoretical treatises of the Middle Ages, any note three times as long as a note of the next metrical level is said to be perfect, since 3 was considered a perfect number. Any note only twice as long as others was called imperfect, or rather "imperfected," since 2 was seen not only as distinct from 3 but as an incomplete or corrupt derivation from 3.

An anonymous 14th–century treatise known as Ars cantus mensurabilis makes several references to medieval canon law as explanations for musical practices. It combines legal references with Christian numerology in explaining that a note cannot be imperfected twice—that is, made 4/9 as long as perfect notes, 2/3 x 2/3—for the same reason that a cleric should not be tried twice for the same indiscretion, in other words once in ecclesiastical court and once in secular court.

Medieval treatises are also fond of explaining the cardinality of some groups of musical objects by reference to Biblical facts. Some for instance explain that we have four modes because there are four gospels. Augustine mentions that a psalter has ten strings perhaps because of the ten commandments. (On Christian Doctrine, Book II, chapter 16.)

On the other hand, the Berkeley Manuscript says that there are four principle modes because there are four elements. So is Christianity just one stream of influence among many equal feeding streams? No. As Nancy van Deusen explains in her book entitled Theology and Music at the Early University, neither remarks such as this one about the four elements nor even a total lack of Christian references in certain music treatises mean that the author was not engaging in Christian scholarship.

[In 13th–century scholarship, she says], [t]he unity of the disciplines . . . consisted of their underlying basic principles [such as "material, harmony, reconciliation, and trinity (p. xi)] and their end, i.e., an understanding of God and his nature to be ultimately attained by their study. The liberal arts were a means to that end, that of understanding spiritual truth . . . . [And m]usic had a unique position in that it exemplified all the liberal arts" (p. xiii).

As van Deusen explains it, the connections between Christianity and music (or any of the other arts for that matter) need not be made explicit in the treatises; the connections were in the nature and order of the curriculum itself. Even the remark about the four elements was a Christian remark in that Aristotelian physics was considered true, and all truth, as Augustine put it, belongs to the Master.

Now, Christian though it might be in some fashion, all of this is likely to sound to us like nonsense. The organ mentioned in Psalm 150 is probably nothing like a medieval organ. And the number of strings on a psalter has nothing to do with the ten commandments. In addition, we've become much more practical, much more interested in details of actual pieces than in cosmic connections, more in the "what?" of music than in the "why?" If we were to have to explain why a note couldn't be imperfected twice, we'd be more likely to say today that 4:9 is a ratio too complex to be of practical use in rhythm. But more to the point, most present–day musicians are more likely to say, "4:9 is a complex rhythmic ratio, but let's use it anyway and see what happens." We see now from the perspectives of history and ethnomusicology that musical practices change and vary, and so what the medieval theorists viewed as the timeless necessities of music, we tend to think of as cultural convention. And if musical practices are merely conventional, it seems that they need no transcendent explanation. There's no need to explain why one musical system works if we think that all systems "work." We're left merely describing systems and pieces.

But I respect the notion that the transcendent explanation behind the visceral experience is a worthy object of study. Even if the medievals were wrong in every detail, I admire their attempt to connect music to the essence of God's truth. Sometimes their subject matter was so abstract, it doesn't even seem to us like music. In an influential passage (Book I, chapter 2), Boethius explains that there are three kinds of music: the music that binds two notes together in harmony, the music that binds the sun to its orbit, and the music that binds the soul to the body. We're more inclined to think of these as completely separate wonders, each to be explained by means of a separate science and a distinct methodology. But this Christian agrees with that Christian that these three particular wonders invite contemplation of the mystery of God's creation in a special way.

But, alas, the days when Christian music and Christian ideas provided the starting places for all discussion of theory gave way to an era of public–concert music and the scientific method. Where once music theorists contemplated the mysteries of God, now we lose ourselves in a preoccupation with mundane "realities." Where once universities accepted music theory as a field required of all students, now some schools debate whether the study of music theory should even be required of music majors. Under these circumstances, for one reason or another, Christian professors in music theory no longer have a distinctly Christian voice in the forum. So the question before us now is, "What might present–day Christian music theory look like?" After long but not always so careful consideration, I do have some proposals to make, but let me answer first by mentioning two things I think it should not be.

First, what I have in mind is not the music theory or criticism of Christian youth guru Bill Gothard, whose correlations of melody and spirit, soul and harmony, body and rhythm, together with the corollary that certain emphases of rhythm are to be shunned, are problematic in several ways. First, the divisions and correlations are simplistic: melody and harmony are impossible without rhythm, melody and rhythm are comprehensible by the mind, and so on. Second, its denigration of the body smacks of Gnostic, not Christian, philosophy. Third, its resultant wariness of drums I find incompatible with the Psalms. I'm glad Gothard and others like him are getting Christians to think about the meaning of music, but his system is too formulaically judgmental.

A second failed attempt at a basis for Christian music theory I'm sorry to say is that of Francis Schaeffer. While Schaeffer has many interesting if not always accurate things to say about painting, sculpture, literature, and drama, he seems to appreciate music only as a vehicle for lyrics, which form the basis for his "music" criticism.

Now let me propose five things that doing Christian music theory might mean. If I could use the reporter's old basic outline, I'll start with the question "Who?" Maybe we should be looking at music written by Christian composers. If I could define such music as Christian music for just a moment, my first proposed path for Christian music theory is to analyze Christian music, especially for Christian content. And surely the world could benefit from the salubrious, salineous effects of analyses of Josquin motets, Palestrina masses, Bach cantatas, and Mendelssohn oratorios. I would like to see here specifically musical analyses, not just commentary on text. In Messiah, for instance, Handel presents theology musically when he sets the text "Surely He hath borne our griefs" to long mournful tones in the choir accompanied by violent, jagged rhythms in the orchestra, clearly communicating through music that Jesus bore our iniquities through the passion of a violent death. And in his Crucifixus, Bach depicts the distortion of Jesus's body through quirky and awkward juxtapositions of harmonies.

But can such points be made about music with no text? Bach and Haydn claimed to write every piece for the glory of God. Are their instrumental pieces Christian pieces? If so, does this mean the notes and rhythms are distinctively Christian? What would that mean? In this age we are used to saying that music cannot convey information the way language does. But is such a belief true? Surely Bach would be surprised if we told him that the dedication of his music to God meant only that he credited God for the work, not that the details of the piece glorify or testify in any way to God. E.T.A. Hoffmann, a writer who was not, as far as I know, a Christian, said that music gives us a view of the eternal and calls us from beyond this mundane life. Might it not be true? In this century scholars have told us that language itself is ultimately meaningless in contradiction to the revelation of Scripture, which tells us that words can hurt or heal, that they can be true or false, and that the worlds were created through words, and which calls the Son of God the Word. Might we have fallen for a similar lie when we believe that music cannot speak? The Bible credits speech to so many things: deep calls to deep, the heavens declare the glory of God. Why not music? Have we simply forgotten the language? Or were musicians from David through Hoffmann merely projecting, as the psychologists would have it, personalities onto inanimate objects? I for one believe that the heavens do indeed testify to God's grandeur, his care for his creation, his artistry, his ingenuity, his power, and his wisdom. I also think that Bach's fugue in B–flat minor testifies to God's sacrificial love through its mournful yet sure melodic character, to his intelligence through the intricacy of its detail, and to his foresight and wisdom through its blending of five different simultaneous melodies into a single, comprehensible whole. Of course it does so somewhat indirectly. The heavens testify directly to their Creator with a capital C. The fugue primarily testifies to the care and intelligence of its creator with a small c, a created creator, a "sub–creator" in Schaeffer's terms. But Bach's ability to compose such a piece in turn leads me to believe he is a son of God, not a son of primordial slime.

But now is Bach's Christian faith necessary to such an analysis? Might we not see care, intelligence, and emotion in any talented pagan composer's work? Victor Hugo explains in Les Miserables that atheist philosophers try to prove that God doesn't exist by means of logic. But the existence of logic testifies to God's existence. The better the argument against God, the tighter the logic, he says, the better it proves God exists after all. As Reese Roper of Christian rock band Five Iron Frenzy puts it, if God can speak through a donkey, he can speak through a musician who hates God. If so, correct analysis of non–Christian music should be able to lead toward increased love for God. "To the pure all things are pure." (Titus 1:15) And—in answer to the questions "How?"—this is my second proposal for Christian music theory: looking at music in a Christian way. This could mean at least two things. As we've just seen, it could mean seeing God through the music despite the composer's best efforts. In John Cage's attempt to make me see that the order in music is only apparent, he invites me to contemplate the music in nature and so–called random noise, which leads me to contemplate the wonder of human perceptual faculties and the grandeur of natural sound, both of which testify to the glory of God.

Looking at non–Christian music in a Christian way should also mean that we don't let the composer become a cipher. The Christian should remember that in analyzing music, we are analyzing not a detached artifact, but the creation of a dignified if sinful and foolish human creature of God. Acknowledging a piece's origin as the creation of a human made in the image of God partly means praising God for his utterly awesome work in fashioning our species.

It also means, however, affording the composer the dignity to make mistakes. Music theory has become almost totally positivist in nature, analyzing what's there for consistency of structure without ever questioning why it's there or whether it should be there. I've read poetic criticism which accuses Milton of weak word choice while nevertheless honoring him as the author of a work worthy of the critic's and the reader's time. Such a view is more in accordance with the Scriptural view of mankind than is current music theory's clinical, if not oblivious, treatment of composers. One Christian professor skeptical of my search for a distinctively Christian music theory asked, "Is there a Christian way to count half steps?" My response is, "Why stop at counting half steps? To do so is to accept the prevailing positivist view."

A third approach to Christian music theory would be to make as the object of study musical actions, not pieces per se. In my Procrustean bed of reporters' questions, this approach seeks answers to the questions "When?"—When does a piece reflect Christianity and when not? The acts of composition, performance, and listening, as human actions, all have the potential to be good or evil. The study of the ethics of these actions could be considered music theory, and not music history or music sociology, if the research touched upon technical aspects of musical style through questions such as…

To answer the question "What?" a fourth type of Christian music theory I'd like to see involves a return to the contemplation of the musical facts given to us by God through nature: the acoustics of sound, the overtone series, the physiology and phenomenon of hearing. Here is one way to summarize the history of music theory. For centuries, we studied properties of tuning and harmony as expressions of and indicators of a transcendent, divine, numerical order in the world. In the seventeenth century, at the beginning of the modern scientific era, we continued to look at the nature of musical sound, but now from a scientific, empirical standpoint. In the eighteenth century, continuing with the empirical approach, we began to treat _compositions_ scientifically, searching for the natural principles that made pieces of music do what they did. In the last century, as we have discovered that most music in the world is not like 18th– and 19th–century European music, many have abandoned the idea that music must go in a certain way. Like the Chaldeans who said the world rested on an elephant who stood on a turtle, apparently comfortable with not asking what the turtle stood on, mainstream music theory seeks to explain the facts of a piece only by looking for hidden structures, but remains comfortable not seeking explanations for those structures. One half of the mainstream, the set–theory folks, says any structure will do. The other half, the Schenkerians, insist on their one structure, normally without questioning the reasons for or value of that structure, and continue to struggle to apply their prescriptive theory to kinds of music that Schenker himself would not have deigned to give more than a passing glance.

Like other modernist endeavors, music theory has retained devotion to rational structure while gradually, silently abandoning the axioms that form the foundation of the rational structure. Postmodernism has begun to show its effects, in the form for instance of papers purporting to prove that Schubert was gay because of the frequency of certain chords in his music. But postmodernism has not yet succeeded in throwing the field of music theory into disarray. Music theory is ready for a tenable critique of modernism, and Christians could lead the way. Let's abandon the idea that music is as it must be and replace it not with the shifting sands of relativism but with the bedrock foundation of contemplation of nature's music as a gift of God. But let us improve on the medieval theorists' view of this gift: its contemplation should lead us to love God more through appreciation of both the positive and the negative aspects of its tantalizing nature. For acoustics, like all of nature, can only give us a concept of and a desire for perfection, not perfection itself. While the beauty of harmony points us to the Creator Who works all things together for good, we must recognize that it is mathematically impossible to produce a perfect tuning system, one that would allow a pure tuning for every pair of notes in a scale. Like the parameters of an electron, the self–contained mathematical system, the unambiguous language, and the moment of the big bang, the tuning system is suggested by the same nature whose laws prevent our ever knowing it. In Pascal's words,

For after all, what is man in nature? A nothing compared to the infinite, a whole compared to the nothing, a middle point between all and nothing, infinitely remote from an understanding of the extremes; the end of things and their principles are unattainably hidden from him in impenetrable secrecy. (Pens‚es, no. 199, Krailsheimer numbers)

Acoustics points us to the transcendent, but also shows us the limits of our world, and testifies to the wisdom of, as Isaiah puts it, "the God who hides." (Is. 45:15)

I've suggested that we study Christian music, an answer to the question "Who?" I've called for looking at music in a Christian way, an answer to the question "How?" I've offered ideas for studying musical activities, answering perhaps the question "When?" And I've proposed a return to philosophical speculation on acoustics rather than always focusing on specific pieces or styles, an answer to the question "What?" The last question to answer is "Why?" The fifth and summary approach to Christian music theory is to do whatever music theory you do for a Christian purpose: to declare some aspect of God's glory. I tell my students with my tongue partly in cheek that music theory is the most important class they'll take because it draws together philosophy, aesthetics, mathematics, physics, sociology, linguistics, psychology, logic, and theology. Christian music theory should explain music as a part of a complex, rich world made by God for good. In tying music to psychology, emphasize the personal nature of man as the image of God, thus testifying to the personal nature of God. In tying music to sociology, emphasize the relational nature of the image of God, thus testifying to the relational nature of God. In tying music to linguistics, emphasize the communicative nature of the image of God, thus testifying to the communicative nature of God. Through the mathematics of music, glorify God's wisdom. Through the physics of music, glorify God's power. Through the beauty of music, glorify God's artistry. It is the Christian, and perhaps only the Christian, who can offer the dying world the most satisfying view of music as a unifying thread in the rich, intricate, yet flawed tapestry we call the world, and the Christian alone who can explain this tapestry as the product of a Master Designer Who through wisdom and love has allowed imperfections for a season, but Who calls us to the restoration.

Works cited:

Ars cantus mensurabilis mensurata per modos iuris. Trans. with and introduction and annotations by C. Matthew Balensuela. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1994.
The Berkeley Manuscript. Trans. Oliver B. Ellsworth. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.
Boethius, Anicius Manlius Severinus. Fundamentals of Music. Trans. Calvin M. Bower. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989.
Carpenter, Nan Cooke. Music in the Medieval and Renaissance Universities. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1958; reprint, New York: Da Capo Press, 1972.
Clark, Kelly James, ed. Philosophers Who Believe. Downer's Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1993.
The Music Treatise of Anonymous IV: A New Translation. Trans. Jeremy Yudkin. Neuhausen–Stuttgart: H„nssler–Verlag, 1985.
Ramis, Bartolomeo. Bartolomeo Ramis's Musica Practica. Trans. Clement A. Miller. Neuhausen–Stuttgart: H„nssler–Verlag, 1993.
van Deusen, Nancy. Theology and Music at the Early University: The Case of Robert Grosseteste and Anonymous IV. Leiden, Netherlands: E. J. Brill, 1995.
Zarlino, Gioseffo. On the Modes. Trans. Vered Cohen. Edited with an introduction by Claude V. Palisca. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1983.

Ken Stephenson serves on the faculty of The University of Oklahoma.