The Music of Imperfection

photo credit: Sunday 225 via photopin (license)

I was a music major in college, and in freshman music theory, we learned about an interval called a Tritone.  

A Tritone is an augmented fourth, or a combination of pitches that make a dissonant sound when played together.  We also learned that from the Renaissance until the Classical Era, Tritones were generally banned in church music.  A musician in the early 18th century even referred to the Tritone as diabolus in musica, or the Devil in music. 

Church music of this era was supposed to be beautiful and pleasing to God, full of predictable chord progressions and pretty major chords and final resolutions.  You could spend years learning all the rules of hymn writing, the rules about passing tones, chord structure, and bass lines.

Though many of these hymns were written for pipe organs and choirs and great cathedrals, in its essence, church music hasn’t changed much in 800 years.  We may go to church in repurposed warehouses and school gymnasiums and modern sanctuaries, but we still have a set of rules to follow.  We still write worship songs with the same predictable chord progressions and pretty major chords and final resolutions.

Though our concept of beauty has shifted from pipe organs to synthesizers and ambient guitar effects, we still want our worship to be beautiful and pleasing to God.

There’s nothing wrong with striving for beauty and excellence, but what about the times when we mess up and play the wrong notes?  What about the times when the feelings we want to express don’t fit the mold? 

I think it’s fascinating how most of us can identify a Christian song on the radio in just a few seconds, even if we’ve never heard it before.  Even if we never hear Jesus mentioned, there’s some inexplicable quality about it that makes it Christian. Something about the upbeat melody, the major chords, the predictable pattern it follows.  There has been a lot written in the past few years to criticize our modern idea of “Christian art”, but not many have seen it as more than a late twentieth-century phenomenon. 

Before the days of modern hymn writing, Plainchant (later known as Gregorian Chant) was the most common form of church music.  Plainchant was written in seven different scales, called modes.  One of these modes is what we now call a major scale, and one is what we call a minor scale, but many of the others would sound unusual to our modern ears.  During the Medieval  Era, each church mode was considered to have a different feeling or character associated with it.  For example the Phrygian mode was said to be “angry” or “vehement”, and the Mixolydian mode was said to “combine pleasure and sadness”. 

If you’ve ever listened to Plainchant, there’s a kind of beautiful sadness in it.  There’s this quality to the music that is exquisite and divine and deeply human all at once.  As humans, we crave beauty.  We crave transcendence.  We want music to be a way to escape from the mundane and connect with God in an authentic way.

Somewhere along the way, we preserved the beauty and not the sadness, the happiness, but not the anger. 

Some of my favorite artists are the ones who aren’t afraid to wrestle with doubt, who aren’t afraid to express anger and sadness, who aren’t afraid to break the rules.  Even outside of music, we need to re-think the simple resolutions, the “I once was lost, but then I found Jesus” testimonies, the idea that beauty is always equated with peace and happiness.  As musicians, artists, writers, or humans, we shouldn’t be afraid of dissonance.  We shouldn’t let our pursuit of beauty cause us to impose a set of rules that narrowly define what is beautiful or not beautiful. 

Beauty shouldn’t come at the expense of authenticity. 

So maybe in our churches, in our art, in our lives, we should re-evaluate our fixation with beauty.  We need to make spaces for tritones, for unresolved chord progressions, for wrong notes, for splattered paint, for stories with complicated endings.  After all, sometimes imperfection makes the most beautiful music.