A Beginner’s Guide to the Argument from Music

“From a mother singing to her baby, to the professional singer, or a local church choir to a teenage rock band “jamming” in their parents garage, one thing is for certain…. everyone loves music. Whether we are musical or not, musical appreciation seems to be wired into nearly all regions of our brain. And we do more than hear it; we “feel” the heart of a song. Why? What is it about music that makes it so powerful? And where is that source of power from?

What makes music so powerful, is what it is, and what it is not. Music, like language is universal, but unlike language, music does not rely on a linguistic or physical context. Rather, music is based on the organisation and interpretation that is perceived in sound itself. Put another way, music is the sound within the sounds. Hearing a series of sounds is not hearing music. Music is not just clicks or random sounds (unless the composer dictates it for a particular effect), but exists when rhythm, melodic or harmonic order is deliberately created and consciously listened to. And only a rational being with self-consciousness, intention and the ability to represent the world can experience sound this way, so says the late Professor Roger Scruton in his book Understanding Music: Philosophy and Interpretation[1]  Interestingly enough, we human beings are the only creatures that fit that description among all things inhabitants of planet Earth.

What makes us different from the rest of creation? The Bible says that it is that we are made in the image of God. After God created light, the moon, stars, oceans, rivers, the moon, stars and animals that fly, swim, burrow or crawl, etc., he created mankind beginning with Adam. After creating his body from the dust of the earth (Genesis 2:7), God breathed into the formed man, and Adam became a living soul. That God breath bequeathed human beings with a unique nature that is non-existent in the rest of creation. The Bible affirms that man is the chief of God’s creation, making us just a little lower than the angels (Psalm 8:5). It is our soul that grants us consciousness, creativity, beliefs, the desire for truth as well as the ability to make and understand music.

However, our atheist friends deny this explanation because of their naturalistic worldview. In lieu of supervenient (top down) graces or gifts from God to man, evolutionary science declares that music originated from the love calls of primates during their courtship for the sake of charming the opposite sex, and is a collection of coordinated sounds that emerged (bottom up) as an adaption selected for us by the course of evolution as a result of computational theory of the human brain[2] However, these theories remain highly speculative. Professor Scruton dismisses that framework stating “Attempting to understand music through the interpretative lens of evolution or science principles exclusively will fail, as music belongs to another order of experience from the cries of animals.” [3] Unlike the instinctive sounds of songbirds, music is a creative endeavour that humans engage in for artistic, spiritual and emotional reasons. It takes intelligence, intention and creative activity to make music.

God’s creatures (both animal and human) can make sounds, but only the human being is endowed with the type of information necessary to hear and interpret sounds heard in nature (as well as their own mind) and creates new sounds as unique expression of life and feeling. Even people groups in remote parts of our planet who have never heard a violin, a xylophone or the exhilarating sounds of electronic dance music, nevertheless, create music with intention and deliberation to be consciously listened to with others.

Even the simple song Happy Birthday (which just happens to be the most popular song in the world) has a system of order in sound. Written in 1890 by an American schoolteacher, Happy Birthday was composed with the intention of being a song simple enough for children to sing. The song did not emerge randomly, but was created with intention, for a purpose. Though it is the simplest of songs, nevertheless, an intelligent being with consciousness, intention and purpose deliberately created it to celebrate someone’s birthday (and rally her noisy kindergarten class back into order!)

The element of intention in the creative process has nothing to do with survival instinct. Rather, it defies sole explanation in terms of the “survival of the fittest”, its only position in the Naturalistic worldview and supports the Christian Worldview that we are more than our brains, and music is more than just sound. As professor Jeremy Begbie argues “science is not qualified to adjudicate on the existence or otherwise of a creator.”[4] Hence, Naturalism simply is not qualified to determine the origin of the existence of things not seen, such as music.

Do animals respond to sound? Yes, and some might have the ability to imitate sound, but it is more of a Morse code type of communication than true song. For example, the nightingale bird cannot “hear” the song in her birdsong. She didn’t create it. She simply repeats what God put in her DNA and operates by instinct. We may describe her sounds as musical, but animals do not have the capacity for music. Rather, they release various “tracks” of a prerecorded program given in their nature. Some louder in case of fear, or softer if they are cuddling their young, but it is not music. Neither do animals worship or cry. Animals eat, sleep, do their best to survive and mate. They are of a different order of creation.

Though we love our fur family (as I like to call our rescue cat and chickens), only humans made in the image of God create, understand, and appreciate what music is and what it does. Music is not another cry of advanced animals, it is one of God’s invisible gifts shared with humans as a sign that we are more than our brains and music is more than merely sound.

Though the image of God is disfigured in us all because of sin, it can be restored through repentance and receiving the atoning work of Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection. If you haven’t done so yet, be reunited to God today. A simple, honest prayer of repentance and acknowledgement that you are a sinner and He is God, that you surrender and receive His eternal love will do. And when you do, the Bible says that the angels in heaven rejoice when one sinner repents.

The naturalistic explanation of music and our capacity to make and appreciate it, remains deeply unsatisfactory. Music is better understood as a sign of transcendence, a beautiful signpost towards our creator, and something which demands a response. So, start the band up in heaven and join in the song of the redeemed… Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost, but now I’m found, I was blind but now I see.

Angela Courte MacKenzie is a broadcaster, pianist, vocalist, and worship leader.  Angela holds a B.A. degree in music/vocal performance from the University of Central Florida, and a M.A. in Apologetics from Talbot School of Theology, Biola University. With her marriage to Kenneth MacKenzie in 2014, Angela has an immediate family of 30 (excluding pets) Through media, music, and speaking, Angela continues to share the Gospel of Jesus Christ and enjoys life as an American in Scotland. @angelacourtemackenzie  www.angela.org

[1] Roger Scruton, “Understanding Music: Philosophy and Interpretation”, New York: Continuum, 2009.

[2] Roger Scruton, “Why Music” Is music different from the other arts?” October 2011.  http://www.themusicalbrain.org/contentrogerscruton.pdf.4-9.

[3] Scruton, Understanding Music, p7

[4] Housley, Kathleen L. “A Conversation with Jeremy Begbie.” Image Journal (October 2015): p9

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