This piece was originally featured in Cogitare’s 2023 Spring Print Edition.
Setting modern music in perspective with classical music allows us to glimpse the strengths that modern music may have.
Classical music originated as religious music, lauding God in Western European churches. It soon found its place in private estates when nobles hosted gatherings and small concerts. Classical music stressed rhythm, instrumentation, and a very clear vocal tone.
The Baroque era of music was characterized by flowing melodies and the combination of more than one melodic line played with relatively little dynamics, while the Classical era of music was marked by a greater variety of instruments and sounds, dynamism on a more diverse but small scale, and more clearly marked cadences. With the Romantic era, dynamic expression increased and combined with embellishments such as chromatic harmonies to convey emotion.
Modern music employs movements used in all these eras, elaborating on them by combining the various techniques and movements. Modern music also allows expression through serialism, minimalism, and atonality, musical developments that differ from classical music but do not make it any less beautiful.
Does greater musical liberty reflect a decline in Western Civilization?
While it is not acceptable to praise what is dishonorable, many modern musicians do not do so but still seek to provide consolation to the soul through the order of music. Modern composers expand classical musical practices, adding to the traditions of composition.
Dr. Munson, professor of Music History at Grove City College, pointed to common human desires in discussion of modern music. Acknowledging that such desires can be perverted, Munson maintained that humans all want the same things: love, order, understanding, consolation. He also explained that these human desires are infinite because we have an infinite God. These desires remain for modern musicians and show themselves in their music.
Dr. Piastro, professor of Vocal Music at Grove City College, explained that it is not fair or right to discount modern music for its changinging emphases or for its movements that deviate from traditional forms.
Dr. Piastro said that the styles of modern music remain legitimate because they reflect a vast spectrum of backgrounds and experiences. Dr. Munson reflected on the human need for order in time: “Music is the distillation of organized time itself.” Just as poetry orders words into cadence with rhythm, thus giving meaning to the poem, so also does music figure lyrics to meter and give meaning to words and expression to music.
It is a mistake to discount all modern music based on some dishonorable modern music. It is a wiser consideration to discern whether particular music is conducive to the development of the soul.
Such discernment does not justify listening to crass music, but it does allow listeners to enjoy music by contemporary composers who address contemporary concerns. among generations and cultures is an array of different concerns. As such, it is consistent that each era of history would transpire with its own era of music. Yet, because of the complexities of the heart, it is imperative that we discern what music we allow to touch our minds and our hearts.
As Dr. Piastro noted, the movements of classical music were new to those alive at the time. In the same way, many movements of modern music are new, unique, and sometimes employ technology unavailable to musicians of other eras, but all music has its place. Modern music is a continuation of the musical tradition of innovating, creating, employing new methods, and broadening the spectrum of movements.
The attempt to reconcile human experience and to find the peace of order are long standing human needs that reflect man’s greater desire for the love of God. Whether they are aware or not, composers and artists long for the love of their own Creator. It is this love that spurs them in their creations.
Though we must not forget discernment, let us not forget the gift of music – what with all its changes – that He has given us as refreshment for our souls and as a way to honor him. Let us do so, remembering that ultimately, as Zephaniah tells, the Lord “will take rejoice over you with gladness, He will quiet you by his love, He will exult over you with loud singing.”
As a longtime fan of modern styles of musical composition, I greatly appreciated these thoughts. Indeed, different times produce different styles of artistic expression; it could also be argued that the twentieth century—the most horrifically violent century yet—demanded the creation of artistic styles which sought to express anguish and despair at the expense of conventional forms of beauty. I can’t imagine the grieving anger and pathos of, for instance, Pendrecki’s “Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima” expressed through the musical style of Mozart, or even Brahms.
It is worth noting, also, that as recording and studio techniques have advanced, many composers have abandoned the orchestra and are focusing their efforts on styles and genres outside the classical mainstream. I’m thinking of musicians such as Brian Eno, Pink Floyd, and Aphex Twin—all musicians whose compositions bear as much scrutiny and analysis as the creations of composers working in the classical idiom.