Resounding Music

Gabriel Hudelson

"Music should strike fire from the heart of man, and bring tears from the eyes of woman." ~ L.V. Beethoven

Building Your Soundscape

This article was originally written as a guest post for friend and fellow composer Bradley Jamrozik of Orchestral Story Studio and has been re-posted here with permission.

Filmmakers pay incredible attention to the details, because within the details lie authenticity.  The coffee stain on the page, the redness of the sunrise, the almost-imperceptible twitch of the actor’s eye, these things thunder the story of the film with a power that stands in stark contrast to their apparent insignificance.

The composer has a crucial role to play in constructing the world of the film, and there is much to be considered when creating a film’s soundscape; just as the details of an actor’s costume are of vast importance to the effective communication of the story, so the choice to use an oboe instead of a flute has huge ramifications on the sonic world of the film.

(Note- when I talk about “sound” and “soundscape” in this article, I am not referring to sound effects and design.  The foley, dialogue, and myriad of other things that make up the sound designer’s domain in the soundscape of the film are powerful communicative tools and are an essential part of the storytelling process, but I am not referring to that here.  I am referring to the sound of the music.  This includes orchestration choices, sound effects integrated into the music, dynamic ranges, anything and everything that constitutes how the music sounds and which is part of the composer’s score, but does not include, say, the sound of the helicopter flying over the trees or the distant gunshot or the trickling stream.)

Before a composer begins to construct the musical details of the world of the film, he needs to know the film!  He needs to have a solid grasp of the story and the director’s vision for the delivery of the story.  He needs to ask himself, and to be able to answer, lots of questions:

– Who is this story about?  This isn’t just a matter of identifying the characters; it is a matter of getting to know them.  What kind of people are they?  What do they like and dislike?  What makes them tick?  What are their quirks, flaws, strengths, weaknesses?

– What is the point of the story?  What does the director want to communicate with this film?  What is the God-honoring message that needs to infiltrate the mind of the viewer and effect they way they think?

– When does this story take place?  Do we want the music to reflect that?

– Where does this story take place?  Do we want the music to reflect that?

– Are there lots of computer-generated images in this story?  When we’re building the soundscape, we need to consider what the sightscape is like too.

– Is it live-action, or a documentary, or an animation?

– What is the director’s vision for the feel of this world?  Does he want it to feel nostalgic, or cutting-edge, or informative?

Before figuring out how to paint the soundscape of a story’s world, the vision for what that world is, how it works, and what it feels like must be established.  So pepper the project with questions.  Tear it down to its most intricate, intimate parts, and get to know it.

Once you really know the project and are comfortable in the world of the story, you can then begin to ascertain how to communicate that world through music and sound.

Any film’s musical soundscape can be broken down into two parts- the music, and the delivery, or sound, of the music.  Both elements have huge impact on the final story-world that the music constructs; here, we will look at them separately, beginning with the music.

A film composer’s job consists primarily of emotional communication through music, but we must not allow this to be understood in a simplistic way- happy music, sad music, romantic music, exciting music.  There is so much more communicated in both the music and the sound that must be considered.  Just because music is happy and the scene is happy doesn’t at all mean that the music is correct for that scene!  Look at the two pictures above; one from “Ender’s Game,” one from “Pride & Prejudice”.  Observe the amazing difference in a relatively similar shot- the protagonist, alone, set against a fitting backdrop for their story.  The colors of the battle room are sharp, cold, and electronic; the colors of Lizzie’s world are very different, washed in gold, soaked in soft, daydreamy light.  Other differences- costume, the time period of the fence behind Elizabeth and the space station behind Ender, the setting of a romantic, idyllic rural countryside and that of a synthetic, futuristic space-station- these are even more obvious.

The same must be true of the way emotions are communicated for these stories.  A sad scene from Miss Bennet’s life might warrant plaintive whimpers in the style of a minor movement from a Mozart sonata, but to use that music in a tragic moment in Ender’s saga would be strangely contradictory to the scene- even though it communicates the correct emotion!

Classical music idioms such as the V7-I chord progression in the happy moments of Pride & Prejudice not only communicate the correct feeling; they also add a flavor of 18th and 19th century oldness that makes the antiquated setting of the film that much more believable and authentic.  To use the same complexity and chordal customs of classical music in the dystopian world of Ender’s Game would clash strongly with the sharply modern everything-else that makes that world up.  (Note- that clashing effect can be a powerful and effective artistic decision; the important thing is that it is done on purpose.  For an example of that, consider Nicolas Cage driving through the collapsing world at the end of “Knowing” in which calm classical music is contrasted to the chaos and mayhem outside of Cage’s car; this communicated the peace in his mind amid the impending doom he and his world faced, and made for a striking contrast.)

Thus, Steve Jablonsky’s “Ender’s Game” is, musically, very modern, very minimalistic, made up of fragmented melodies and motifs drowned in atmospheric chord progressions, while Dario Marianelli’s “Pride & Prejudice” has all the depth and delicious complexity of a late 18th-century piano concerto.

Even if these scores were turned into a piano reduction, so that the sound was identical, and even if tracks were pulled out from each score which communicated similar emotions, they would be clearly different, because each composer constructed a musical soundscape that fit the world of their film.

Once a composer has answered the questions he asked of the film at the beginning of the process, he then can prayerfully consider how to use the music to communicate whatever the answers were.

Now we turn to practical applications.

– Chordal and harmonic complexity in a more straightforward, classical style generally communicates intelligence, calmness, high culture, and oftentimes a sense of oldness. (“Pride and Prejudice”)

– Musical minimalism generally sounds more modern and sentimental. (“Ender’s Game,” “Man of Steel,” “The Dark Knight Rises”)

– Simple, motivic melodies communicate a more visceral (often action-driven) story, while grand and prominent melodies speak more of character, drama, and a more “old Hollywood” sound. (See “The Bourne Ultimatum” vs. “How To Train Your Dragon”- same composer; totally different musical language.)

– A focus on rhythm communicates action; a focus on melody and harmony communicates emotion; the degree to which you blend these is an important consideration.  It has been said that melody communicates to the mind, harmony to the emotions, and rhythm to the body, and there is a lot of truth to this trinity.  Experimenting with that triangle is a powerful way to settle on the musical language of a project.  (See “Schindler’s List” and “Forrest Gump” for a melodic/harmonic focus, “Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End” and “Prince of Persia” for a three-way blend, “Inception” and “Man of Steel” for a harmonic/rhythmic focus.)

– That said, I believe that melody is the most important part of music and must always be the primary consideration; this is one of the things that I think much of modern film music (like “Ender’s Game” and many newer Hans Zimmer scores) is lacking.  Spending time to develop a good melody- a melody worth telling, worth exploring, worth developing- is very important.  Find a melody that communicates the right things for your film; the same rules which apply generally to the score apply specifically to the melody.  If melody communicates to the mind, then music devoid of melody is mindless music; it might be worth listening to once or twice, but soon becomes exhausting.  With every score I write, I hope to leave the audience with a melody stuck in their head long after the film is over- and to write a melody good enough that they will be happy about that!

Now let us consider the orchestration aspects of the soundscape.  The notes used in a score communicate powerfully, but the way those notes are delivered also has a lot to say.  Let’s look at some other scores to illustrate this point.

Michael Giacchino’s music for “Up” is a quintessential example of perfect soundscaping.  The musical information in the score has the perfect amount of oldness (our hero is, after all, well into his sunset years) blended with the classic sounds of adventure that we would expect from a score like this.  A waltzy sound and liberal use of accidentals and jazzy chord progressions combined with soaring melodies and heartbreakingly simple renditions of the main theme all combine to make the notes perfect for the film.  But the excellence of this score doesn’t stop there; those notes are delivered in a way that sounds like “Up.”  This is the goal of the soundscape-building process- to create a score that sounds like [insert film title here].

So what does “Up” sound like?  A bit jazzy, with a heavy flavor of solo instruments, yet certainly not afraid to float into full orchestra when the story demands it.  It sounds like something wafting out of a well-worn record player that Carl and Ellie would dance to.  We hear lots of solo violin, muted trumpets, piano, lighthearted orchestral percussion, woodwinds, and other less familiar instruments which I hesitate to identify lest I reveal my own ignorance.  We do NOT hear intimidating synthetic soundscapes; the trombone players get to contribute to the action music, but could probably fit in a few good naps during the session. Most of the percussion in this score is either the fun stuff (small ethnic percussion, triangle, shaker, etc.) or tonal percussion; glockenspiel, celeste, marimba- but not snare ensembles, anvils, Mahler hammers, or drum kit grooves.  No bagpipes or Lord-of-the-Rings choir here.

Giacchino and his orchestrators knew what they wanted “Up” to sound like, and everything from the music to the instrumentation contributed to the consistency of that soundscape.

Some other excellent examples of scores that knew what their movie should sound like would be Dave Grusin’s “The Goonies,” James Newton Howard’s “The Village,” John Powell’s “How To Train Your Dragon” (especially if you compare and contrast 1 and 2!) and “The Bourne Ultimatum,” Geoff Zanelli’s “The Odd Life of Timothy Green.”

Here are some practical considerations for the orchestration part of soundscape creation:

– The instruments of the standard orchestra are, mostly, “safe” instruments; they more or less transcend genres.  This is most true with orchestral strings, and almost as true with brass and percussion.  The non-reed woodwinds- the flutes and piccolo- have an open, vocal, human sound that is fitting in most contexts and can be used liberally (but don’t get too piercing with that piccolo, please!). The rest of the woodwinds, because of the variety and uniqueness of the colors they offer, shouldn’t be applied with the same orchestrational broad-brush.

– In considering the rest of the woodwinds, great care must be exercised in staying consistent with the sound of the score.  Reedy-sounding woodwinds generally have a more classical and orchestral sound, and so they are excellent for adding that sound and color to a score in the tradition of John Williams and “grand old Hollywood.”  However, they generally do not belong in a bitingly modern film’s soundscape for that same reason.

– Also consider- how is this instrument traditionally used, and how could I tweak those conventions to make this instrument fit this soundscape and lend unique colors to the score?  Bradley Jamrozik pointed out to me that the poignant, haunting theme that introduces the hero in “The Bourne Identity” is played on a bassoon, an instrument which he plays, and which he said is usually used in the bass registers but which has a beautiful, sonorous, lyrical high voice.  That voice John Powell used to great effect, taking an instrument which, if used conventionally, might have sounded odd in an action-thriller score, and transforming it into a unique sonic signature that was the cherry on top of the soundscape of Bourne.  So take some time to experiment with the non-traditional possibilities hidden within traditional orchestration.

– Drumkits have a much more pop, and, dare I say it, cheaper sound than orchestral percussion.

– The piano can be used in about a million different ways and in a million different contexts.  I am biased, but I think it belongs in most film scores- if not as a prominent part of the soundscape, simply as another section of the orchestra.

– Vocals are powerful; they can also be distracting.  A solo vocalist can add a lot of heart, depth, and humanity to a score (see Hans Zimmer’s “Gladiator”), while a choir generally adds an almost metaphysical grandeur to music, as well as the penultimate “epic music” sound and a general impression of bigness- big scope, big vision, big world, big budget (see John Powell’s “How To Train Your Dragon 2”, John Williams’ “Duel of the Fates”, and Howard Shore’s choral quintessence, “Lord of the Rings”).  Prominent vocals singing in English are usually only the realm of songs inserted into the film for montage and/or credits purposes because they would be too distracting and thereby detracting in any other context.

– Synthesizers and electronic instruments have such a broad range of sounds that it is hard to pigeon-hole them into any particular style, but they are generally not found in “big Hollywood” scores unless they’re for a very specific purpose (like the electric guitar in John Williams’ “Zam the Assassin and the Chase through Coruscant,” from “Star Wars: Episode II”). Generally, synthesizers and electronic instruments add a clear flavor of modernity to music… for obvious reasons.  Side note: few things communicate rebellion like a distorted electric guitar.

– Solo instruments or unique instrument palettes are very effective in creating a unique signature for your score.  Just be sure that the instrument you chose fits the topic.  Solo harmonica may be a great motif in a movie about a hobo or the wild west, but give it some thought before you use it for a story set in Victorian England (some great examples of solo instrument use are the duduk and Spanish guitar in Hans Zimmer’s “Gladiator” and the solo violin in John Williams’ “Schindler’s List”).

– Ethnic instruments, especially well-known ones, often deserve a place in films set in exotic locations… and sometimes taste so strongly of their homeland that they can’t transcend that stereotype very well, as in the case of bagpipes or accordions.  A lot of times, the instrument doesn’t have to be exactly accurate, so long as the story it tells is; James Horner used an uilleann pipe- traditionally an Irish instrument- as the mainstay of the soundscape narrating the story of Scottish freedom-fighter William Wallace.  Not technically accurate, but musically accurate.

There’s so much more that could be said on this topic, but hopefully this will get you started thinking about the power of soundscape and the ways we can use soundscape to tell God-honoring stories with excellence.  Thanks goes to Bradley Jamrozik for suggesting this post, for honoring me with the opportunity to guest-post on his blog, and for all the things he’s taught me over the course of the last few months.  Please comment with your questions!

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BOUND Trailer

Just to get the excitement going a little bit.

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Bound

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You may recall a Kickstarter video I was involved with a while back for a film called “Bound.” Since then, The LORD provided above and beyond the stated funding goals for this project, and I’ve been blessed with the opportunity to contribute in a slightly more substantial way to the finished product.  Over the past few months, I’ve been working with the Monitogo Studios team on nailing down exactly what “Bound” will sound like, sketching themes, setting up the instrumental soundscape, and so on.  This week, scoring officially commenced- and this week we also released the first taste of this score.  You can hear it below.

Stay tuned for more updates from this project, thoughts on the composition process, and more tastes of the music!

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Desire and Reality

When I write music, many times I can hear in my head what I want the music to sound like.  I’ll get excited, hardly able to bear the fact that before I can write the glorious conclusion that’s already ringing out in my mind I have to write all of the music that will get me from where I am now to where I want to be then.  There is a gap, however temporary it may be, between my concept and the realization of that concept.

I was thinking about this yesterday, in light of all of the attempts to get computers to better understand us; maybe one day they’ll get to the point where they are installed in our brains and all we have to do is think and they will do what we are thinking.  (Not saying I would want this to happen…)

So much of technology works to shorten that gap, and the shorter that gap becomes, the more powerful the person with the idea becomes; the less there is to overcome in bridging desire and reality, the more reality can be conformed to desire.

Yet, even then, the gap remains, because for our concept to be realized we still have to define it, to flesh it out, to make it realizable.  I doubt that Bach had a picture in his mind of “Invention No. 1 in C Major;” he had to figure it out, come up with the melodies, construct the harmonies, analyze the counterpoint.  So even if a computer could realize our thoughts instantly, we are constrained by our own finitude to work over the course of time.  We cannot go directly from concept to realization; we must do some amount of construction in-between.

And this, I think, is part of the power of God; for Him, “My purposes will be established, and I will accomplish all My good pleasure;” “For He spoke, and it came to be.”

For the Almighty King of the universe, there is no gap between desire and reality.

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Making Your Composer Happy

On my Facebook page I recently asked the question: “If you could learn one thing or have one question answered regarding film music, what would it be?”

One response that was given was this: “A checklist of things composers would love at the beginning of a project to make their lives easier. Hopefully for people who are both familiar with the inter-workings of music and those who are not so much.”

As a composer, I really appreciate this question.  Composers are, after all, a mystical and unpredictable breed, hiding in the shadows of long-distance post-production, shrouded in mystery and legend.

So what can a filmmaker do to help his composer from the very beginning of a project?

1. Budget for music.  Jesus asked who would start a construction project without seeing if they had the resources to complete it; the implied answer is “nobody!”  Filmmakers generally follow this advice- what will the catering cost?  How many locations will we need to pay for?  What equipment will we need to rent?  It’s important to make the same provisions for music.  Even if you don’t have a composer in mind for your project, contact a few just to see what the general going rate is, and plan for enough music budget to hire a composer fit for your project.  I can’t tell you how much of a blessing it is to work with someone who understands that composition is work and that “the laborer is worthy of his hire;” someone who wants to pay their people well.  That’s a different paradigm than “how little will you accept for this project?”- and your composer (and anyone else on your filmmaking team) will thank you for taking that approach.  Most composers would happily compose for the rest of their lives for free, except that it’s hard to eat music.

2. Clarify the legal stuff.  The sooner you can nail down the legalities of the project, the sooner you can move on to the music!

3. Work with the composer to solidify the soundscape that colors the world of your story.  One of the most important parts of the soundtrack-creation process is figuring out what a movie sounds like.  Is this a Hans-Zimmer-Inception score or a John-Williams-E.T. score?  Big brass stabs or gentle piano ostinatos?  Synthesizers or soloists?  Ethnic instruments?  Vocals?  Spending a few Skype sessions (and the ideal in-person spotting session) making sure you and your composer are on the same page will save both of you a lot of time and headaches in the future.  Having a list of famous scores you like that have the right feel for your movie, some basic thoughts on what it is that you like about those particular scores, and a little collection of emotional terms that describe your movie, your story, and the music it needs will help a lot in these discussions.

4. Give your composer time.  While you probably can’t mail your composer a box of this valuable resource, you can help them immensely by giving them advance warning of a project coming down the pipeline in their direction.  By contacting them in the early stages of your project, you provide them with a chance to plan their schedule ahead of time, to begin formulating ideas before those ideas are facing a deadline, and to be involved in the creative process of your film.  That scene in The Dark Knight Rises where the little boy sings the national anthem (as opposed to some big-name A-list singer)- that was Hans Zimmer’s idea. Give your composer a chance to really become a part of your filmmaking team, and his involvement with your story will be that much deeper and more intimate.  That, in turn, may well shine through in the music.

5. Be careful with your musical affections. Don’t fall in love with a piece of music unless there’s a chance you can actually marry it to your film. Remember, the composer’s job is to make your film better than it was before by contributing music that tells your story. His job is to master the language of music, and you are hiring him to lend that expertise in the telling of your story. If you fall in love with a temp-track (“this piece from Newman’s Cinderella Man score just works so perfectly here!”) or with an idea (“I want the music for this film to use lots of trombones and no piano”), you might end up tying the composer’s hands and preventing him from doing his job well.  It’s your movie, so you are the boss; the composer’s creativity will be as free as you allow it to be.  If you encourage him to share his thoughts, to experiment, if you let him make the call where you aren’t sure whether your way or his way is better, you will build trust; he will know that you genuinely appreciate his abilities as a composer, and when the time comes for you to put your foot down (“sorry, I really just don’t like that kazoo solo in the middle of the battle scene”) your composer will know it’s not because you don’t care what he thinks.

6. Be ready to answer these questions:

– What is your music budget?

– When do you need the music to be done by?

– When will a locked cut of the movie be ready?

– What is the general style that you’re envisioning for this soundtrack?

7. Be there to provide feedback.  This is important throughout the whole filmmaking process, but at the beginning, those initial sketches and questions are setting the tone for the entire score to follow.  If you are involved, interested, and careful in giving your thoughts, encouragements, critiques and questions in a timely manner to your composer, you will help him settle comfortably into the musical world of your film that much sooner.

8. Be clear about your level of commitment.  Are you just asking around and getting quotes from some composers?  Is this project one that you’re still praying through, and your just doing your research?  Or are you confident that this is the composer you want working on your project?

So much of this has to do simply with communication.  That’s one of the things I love about filmmaking; it’s such a collaborative art.  Really, it all boils down to the first and second great commandments; if you approach your composer with love, humility, openness, excitement about your project and a desire to glorify God, you could break every rule above and still make your composer happy.

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Refracted Glory

Over the past month-and-a-half or so, I’ve had the pleasure of collaborating with friend and fellow composer Bradley Jamrozik on the score to the upcoming Border Watch Films documentary Refracted Glory.  Below is a video peek behind the scenes of the scoring process.

Today we released the first official tastes of the soundtrack- including the first piece I’ve ever written with live violin.

The LORD blessed me with the opportunity to work with a dear friend, Matthew Duran, on this track; he is a very gifted violinist, and I’m thrilled with the end result of our collaboration.

Also check out Bradley’s excellent track, and stay tuned for more updates from the Refracted Glory team!

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“Providence” Album Release

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Music from the Founding Fathers Project- which blends the stereotypical fife-and-drum sounds of colonial America with the heart-on-sleeve passion and orchestral grandeur of modern film music- is now available for download from the Resounding Music store!  Below is a taste of the album:

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Demo Reel 2014

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EXALTATION Album Release

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I had the immense pleasure of working with seven other composers on an album of music celebrating the birth of The Lord Jesus Christ in a cinematic style.  This album presents a musical take on Christmas not quite like anything you’ve ever heard before- and I think that’s a good thing.  You can hear a bit of one of my contributions to this project below, and check out the album on iTunes, find it on Spotify, and look for it in the near future on many other online music stores like AmazonMp3.

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What About Rock Music?

“Is rock music evil?”

This question, or variations on its theme, comes up often in conservative Christian circles (within which I am proud to swim).

Before presenting the answer to this question, a few things must be established:

1. Music is not neutral; it is both an art and a science, and both elements of music must be submitted to Christ.

2. The Bible is the Standard by which all things are to be judged. (2 Tim. 3:16)

3. There are some areas of life which Scripture does not explicitly address; this does not remove those areas from the purview of Christ’s Lordship, but it does make diligent searching necessary. (Proverbs 8)

I believe that music is one of those areas; while there are Scriptural principles that apply, there is no dissertation on musical theory between “in the beginning” and “amen”.

I also believe that unless we seek God wholeheartedly on this issue He will allow us to be swayed by our own prejudices and lusts.

One other note; throughout this post I will be generalizing with glib impunity. I trust my readers to give me the benefit of the doubt; I know that not all rock music is head-banging and backbeat-heavy; I know that not all classical is melodious and intelligently complex; I’m using the terms to connote the broad idea behind the genre or style without having to launch into a detailed explanation on every point.

Now, back to the original question.

“Is rock music evil?”

No. I don’t believe that rock music is evil. I believe that rock music says evil.

Is there ever a time for something that says evil? Absolutely. Throughout the pages of Scripture we see many tales told of evil deeds; rebellious sons, abusive men, seductive women- God’s Word doesn’t hide us from our own depravity.

Even so, in the stories that we tell, there is a place for evil. It must be handled in a God-honoring and lawful way, but it must be present in our stories, because it is present in God’s Story.

So if there is a movie which honors God and which lawfully presents the struggle between good and evil, there may be a need for music which says evil.

However, to make a steady diet of music that says evil is a decision not to be taken lightly. There may be a time for a Christian to act the role of a murderer, but to take that role on as a way of life is opening a door to dangerous consequences.

And so with every form and style of music. The Pride and Prejudice soundtrack is beautiful and calming, but it certainly doesn’t say the right thing to motivate me during an intense workout. Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos have a level of technical excellence buried within that warrants years of study, but they would not make a fitting backdrop for the bullet-dodging escapades of Jason Bourne. A Chopin Nocturne would fit a gentle goodbye scene far better than scenes from the apocalypse- unless, as a storytelling tool, the calmness of the music is intentionally contrasted with the chaos and destruction.

To scream “Jesus loves you!” over a distorted power chord and a heavy backbeat is to tell two different stories simultaneously- and the result is chaos, which is contrary to God’s nature. This could be used appropriately as a storytelling tool, but it must be recognized for what it is; it may be appropriate, but it isn’t beautiful, and we shouldn’t pretend that it is.

Those power chords might exactly match the message of someone reveling in the pleasures of sin- and that would be a lawful and skillful and fitting use of that music, provided that the story is resolved in a God-honoring way.

So instead of asking whether the music is good or bad, let’s ask what the music says- and how well it says it- and whether what it says is being used in a proper and God-honoring way.

The communicative power of music is obvious; there is a reason that directors pay hundreds of thousands of dollars for a John Williams score instead of knocking on their neighbor’s door to inquire about their teenage son’s garage-band. There’s a reason that a country singer wears a cowboy hat, a rocker wears a mohawk, and an orchestra looks like a gathering of penguins. Flames and neon lights don’t fit the story of Handel’s Messiah, but AC/DC is right at home in that setting.

Why? Because music says something. So does lighting. So does color.

When we depart from the binary “good/bad” approach to analyzing aesthetics, things become more difficult. Life is easy when we have a list of legalisms to check ourselves against- “Don’t watch R-rated movies, don’t ever drink alcohol, don’t listen to rock music, don’t play card games.”

Scripture calls us, however, to press beyond the milk and into the meat- to seek wisdom. (Hebrews 5:14)

May God guide us in this search.

Recommended listening: Some excellent talks on music by Ken Myers

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