There is a funny introductory track to a wildly-inappropriate album I used to listen to as a teenager that ends with the phrase, ‘…lean back and just enjoy the melodies. After all, music soothes even the savage beast.’
As a highly sensitive individual (an introverted type who has much more sensitivity to certain things than others; see the book ‘Quiet‘ and the web site Quiet Revolution for more), one of my main sensitivities is to music. This has caused both great joy and great distress in my life, and in this post I hope to help you navigate through the worst and the best of what having such a thing entails.
More after the break.
The first time I recall having a highly-sensitive musical experience was as a child, when I purchased the Star Wars soundtracks on CD, closed the door to my room, turned them up as loud as wouldn’t drive my parents crazy, and proceeded to have a sonic epiphany. It was like the gates of heaven had been opened. I closed my eyes and could almost see the musicians in my head, the melody carrying my heart to a place of euphoria that I can only compare to a religious experience. I cannot recall all of the experiences where my senses were this attuned to the music, but I know I have had quite a few times where I was so lost in the music that it was like heaven. Many people can take music or leave it. There are fans out there, and then there are…well, people like me for whom music is an unparalleled sensory experience.
It wasn’t until I decided to get ‘serious about God’ in the church we were going to at the time that things started to go south. This was during the height of the 90’s paranoia towarsd satanism. Suddenly, every rock star on the planet was obviously demon-possessed, and for me, the scope of ‘permissible’ music became extremely narrow. This would lead to a contradiction in heart-longing and mind-restriction that caused many years of misery and flip-flopping, not to mention thousands of dollars’ worth of debt from acquiring, then destroying hundreds of compact discs’ worth of music out of religious fervor. It took me many, many years to get free of this kind of thinking–if I had to estimate, I would put it well over twelve years–and made plenty of mistakes during the process that I hope to help you avoid.
Point 1: There is nothing wrong with enjoying music, and enjoying all kinds of music. No problem whatsoever. The Bible is pretty clear in both Old and New Testament that, for some reason, God himself enjoys music. There are a number of verses I could look up and quote for you, but fortunately, other people have done that for me, so if you need Bible verses, there you go.
Many well-meaning evangelical preachers and teachers have attempted to use the Scriptures to say, in so many words, that ‘Gold only approves of certain kinds of music’. This is complete nonsense. To say that the Bible only approves of music covered within limits a person to the music of ancient instruments (that we probably can’t reproduce correctly anyway) and, to many, would have about the same ability to inspire as a boring classical piece. (I’m not disparaging classical music, it’s just not my bag, sorry!)
Just because our forebears in the Bible only had access to certain types of music–whatever hymn Jesus and the apostles sang in the Garden of Gethsemane, the ‘psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs’ Paul mentions, or the crazy-huge big bands David and Solomon used to dig around the time of the Old Temple. To say that any of these kinds of music were ‘wrong’ or ‘un-biblical’ is limiting yourself and anyone you influence to a life of unmusical misery.
‘But what about the devil’s music?’ I submit that, one, you have no understanding of what the Bible teaches of accusers (otherwise known as satan), and two, the idea of any pitchfork-bearing, red-suited clown somehow ‘owning’ all the ‘worldly’ music is complete nonsense.
‘But isn’t some music inherently better or more spiritual than others?’ It depends. This is largely a subjective thing. Worship music, music specifically designed to bring people into an encounter with God, is often tremendously useful while your spiritual senses are becoming attuned to God. While you learn to receive his love and bask in it, it helps to listen to and ‘soak in’ quality worship music.
Note that I said ‘quality’ worship music: There is a sad trend in our modern culture to write worship music that focuses on man’s unworthiness or a sense of distance from God. This music is self-pitying and, to me, completely useless. In my years as an early Christian, I found just about all worship music useful in getting my soul in touch with God. Now I’m a little more selective: if a song does not take into account the fact that we have died, buried, and resurrected with Christ, raised to life with him, and instead speaks of us as ‘sinners saved by grace’ or otherwise finds humans pitiable, I have no use for it. I already know I am a mess. I already know I am screwed up. I have been humbled to the point of insanity because of how phenomenally broken my mind and emotions have been in life. I could write a book on how messed up I have been, and probably will someday. No, I have no use for self-pitying worship music. That type of music doesn’t glorify God, it doesn’t lift up man, and I see no reason to sing it. I don’t spend too much time in lyrical analysis when I hear a new worship song now; I can usually detect the ‘vibe’ of the song within a few seconds and know whether I’m going to be singing it out loud or just singing softly to myself in tongues because of how execrable the lyrics are to my spirit.
Break free of the secular/sacred musical divide. Free yourself of all of this nonsense. If Metallica speaks to you more than MercyMe, if it draws you closer to the presence of God, then take a stand and run with it. You don’t have to tell anyone. If you have legalistic friends who will judge you for listening to ‘evil’ music, then dump those non-friends and find new ones who you can enjoy life with.
You don’t have to play/record/mix music to enjoy music or have musical experiences. Some form of musical talent runs in my family–my mom plays piano and sings and my oldest daughter plays violin. I won’t say that the musical talent ‘skipped’ my wife and I – we both enjoy singing, but not in public, and while I have played a few instruments in my life, I never enjoyed it. It took me many years to come to the realization that most likely I was never going to play any instrument to a successful degree, because I didn’t enjoy it at all. My spirit wasn’t able to connect with what my mind was doing: focusing on all the technical aspects that make music fun for some, but ruined music for me. I was miserable trying to force myself to enjoy piano, cello, tenor saxophone, and guitar. For years I couldn’t understand why. I even tried to learn how to operate a mixing board at church, and never enjoyed it because I didn’t have the ear for it, and the technical analysis my mind had to do during the service prevented me from engaging in worship. When I was repeatedly refused a spot as a singer in a praise band at one church because I was ‘pitchy’ (I couldn’t hear it, but maybe that’s the point! ;)), it was upsetting, but that negative experience ultimately led to a positive one in that it helped me to finally come to a place of rest. I will most likely never have a musical career, and there is nothing wrong with that.
Owning more music does not necessarily increase the amount of musical experiences one can have. When I discovered progressive rock in the mid-90’s–bands such as Yes, early Genesis, and Gentle Giant–my musical horizons opened up wide. I never cared much for classical music, but suddenly my musical ‘palate’ was challenged by something even better – complex musical scores combined with sprawling, epic storylines and soaring vocals that carried my soul to the heavenlies. But along the way, the emotional need and pain I carried inside drove me to purchase more and more music for comfort. I began to get a ‘buzz’ from acquiring new music, to the point where at one point I owned over 2,500 physical CDs of all genres, but especially progressive rock. Yet, as you can imagine, I didn’t have nearly enough time to devote to listening to all of these CDs as I had to spend cataloging and organizing them, a task that is very satisfying to the organizational/intellectual side of me, but didn’t do my emotional/spiritual side any favors.
I used to pin this on ‘materialism’, love of material things, but I think it was basically a material pain-killer: I dealt with undiagnosed depression, anxiety, and all sorts of other nonsense for years, most of which I am free of, or getting free of, now, but that pain caused an unhealthy obsession. It doesn’t excuse it, of course–if I could go back in time and slap my teenage self and say, “You dope! Buying thousands of dollars’ worth of CDs is not going to make you happy!”, believe me, I would. But I can’t. Instead, I get to help others not make the same mistake.
Buying another CD isn’t going to make you happy. Enjoy what you have. If you run out of music, there is plenty of free music available. Somehow God is going to lead you to the right kind of music if you run out. Just be patient and put the debit card away.
Don’t force yourself to listen to music that depresses or upsets you. If someone else says that an artist is great, and doesn’t understand why you don’t like it, they don’t understand you. During my conflicted years, I would listen to Pink Floyd, for example, and my emotions would immediately descend. I was struggling with enough emotional baggage at that point to necessitate its own separate train car, and when someone would play me The Dark Side of the Moon or The Wall, I would sink into a depression. Since I was barely holding my head above water anyway, this was not a good thing! The thing I didn’t understand at the time was that my experience was not universal. Some people can listen to ‘sad’ or ‘depressing’ songs and find that they make them happy during upsetting times like breakups. I listened to a sad song and it used to make me sad, and I already had so much sadness inside that I couldn’t handle it.
Fast forward to today, and things have changed quite a bit. I mentioned the other day an experiment I did on myself, where I listened to a song that I expected to bring back intense memories of shame and regret, and that didn’t happen. I am pleased to report that the next day, I was able to listen to Peter Gabriel’s third album, an excellent album that I have always loved but has always upset me, and I was actually able to experience the album, I believe, as it was meant to be experienced: feeling visceral terror as a thief approaches his target house (‘Intruder’), feeling the joy of absolutely clear communication (‘And Through The Wire’), the misery growing into callous disregard for life of a little boy grown up to be an assassin (‘Family Snapshot’), and feeling the playful glee at children from all nations playing together (‘Games Without Frontiers’). I have had experiences like this before, but the difference is that this time, the experiences did not control me. I didn’t remain depressed after listening to the sad songs. I didn’t remain giddy after listening to the happy songs. My default mental state snapped back to peace and rest. I believe that that’s the target to aim for, and I’m optimistic that things have changed for the better. I hope that, if you’re still struggling with this, that you will continue on into God’s peace and rest and that little things like the enjoyment of music will come to cause you great pleasure with no pain whatsoever.
One final note: You’ll most likely find your musical tastes change over time. Don’t overanalyze this, and don’t feel like you have to force yourself to listen to new music just for the sake of listening to something different. Musical experiences can’t be forced. You just kind of have to go with the flow. You’re not necessarily going to get a ‘new buzz’ or ‘new high’ from new music. Sometimes I cue up The Moody Blues’ Long Distance Voyager (circa 1981 and not even recognized as their best album) and listen to it for days at a time. Other times this particular Imogen Heap album (from 2009) speaks to me. I have no idea of the spiritual leanings of Ms. Heap, and the lyrics to these songs have nothing to do with Christianity whatsoever. It doesn’t matter. For some reason there is something in her music, and in this album in particular, that causes my heart to soar, and I have learned to just go with it. There are other artists I could mention, but what speaks to me won’t necessarily speak to you. And that’s a good thing!
If you’re sensitive to music, that’s a good thing! It means you’re open to some fun experiences that I hope you will enjoy–a potential thrill ride of the senses when you hit Play. But you may also be be open to ridicule from people who don’t understand why you cry when you hear a certain song (God Bless The USA still moves me to tears every time I hear it) or why you have to ask them to turn that one particular song off every time you hear it. I have all confidence in God that he will bring the right people around you who can be understanding and supportive, and in the meantime, that he will get you through.
Enjoy the music, stay safe, and be blessed!