US American consumers can take it as a given that music can live on after its initial creation. After all, it’s how we hear much of our music today (such as streaming services, or vinyl if you are a true audiophile). I love recorded music (as a recording artist myself), yet am also wary of it. I see that recorded music threatens to render the original environment in which the music was created entirely irrelevant to the music itself. Obscuring the original context in which the music was created leads people to believe that all that matters is the product they can consume. My hope is to convince any Christian music listener to resist this delusion and take the original context of music seriously.
With the shift to digitization of music in the 21st century, consumers of music have an ever-decreasing capacity to connect with the original context in which the music was created. Of course, this has always been a concomitant cost of recorded music (dating back to the ancient days of the phonograph). However, there was once a time in the era of commercially distributed recorded music when great effort was put into explaining where the music came from. Remember liner notes for vinyl? They often detailed the location of the studio, the names of the engineers, and maybe even an anecdote from the artist herself about the recording session. This extra-musical content that accompanied the physical piece of recording helped people understand the original context of the music at least a little. That effort on the part of the distributors and the artists demonstrated intent to house the music in a particular context.
But the digital age has redirected our attention to only the sound. For instance, it is increasingly difficult for modern-day listeners to find information about the original context where the music was created. More often than not, streaming services just present the listener with the music itself, an accompanying visual, and maybe some perfunctory information about persons associated with the song. Typically there is no place to look at the location of the music itself (what cities the music was created in, let alone what studio). Location is now irrelevant.
Stripping away details about where music was created gives us the illusion that context does not matter. We are conditioned to think that all that matters is the artist’s identity.
Beyoncé is Beyoncé no matter where she recorded. Her image is such that we can count on a Beyoncé record to have the musical quality that all of her other records have, regardless of where she recorded the music. This is a promise of the corporation-controlled society in which we live (where Starbucks coffee tastes the same the country over), but it is a delusional promise. Context matters to sound, and this is a fact that people know well in settings where music is only produced live.
In settings where there is no recorded music (both presently and in the past), the listener had to engage music in-person. Consider listening to music in pre-20th century America. Living in earshot of their music meant that the listener knew intimately the environmental surroundings of the performer. The listener knew the vegetation that surrounded the musician, the animals that the musician was living near, or how hot the sun felt to the artist. The listener would have heard what surfaces the sounds were bouncing off of as the waves traveled from instrument to ear. The listener would have appreciated how the squirrel running in front of the performer made the drummer play slightly differently at a particular moment in a song. Having intimate knowledge of the original site of production meant that the listener had an intimate knowledge of the music because music is influenced by every element of the environment.
Part of the intrinsic beauty of music is that music necessarily requires us to pay attention to the influence of physical location on the sound. Sounds never come to us in a vacuum. They are necessarily in dialogue with the environment around them. A drum will necessarily sound different in an acoustically controlled studio room than it will in the forest. This is because the sound waves will bounce off padded walls and floors differently than they will trees and soil. Music is always telling us what is around us. So to listen to music deeply is to listen to our environment. When we do not attend to the original context in which music was created, we are only listening so deeply.
As Christians, we must reject the status quo neglect of the original context of recorded music. The Scriptures invite us to consider the importance of context. Oftentimes knowing the location of the biblical writer is of supreme importance in trying to discern what the writer is saying. Consider the letter to the Philippians. In this epistle, the Apostle encourages the church at Philippi.
A well-known verse of encouragement is Phil 4:13: “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” For good and for bad, American Christianity loves this verse. This verse can encourage America’s oppressed or underwrite American greed.
But the verse should not be used to finance American consumerism. This view obscures the original context. Paul states in Philippians 1 that he is a Roman prisoner writing to a church during a time of widespread persecution of Jesus followers (Phil 1:7, 13). So when we read the verse in chapter 4 about Christ being the means by which we can do all things, we should hear the Apostle writing this as he is sitting in a gruesome Roman prison. Paul’s theology emerges from his circumstances of oppression. How might this change our understanding of Paul’s writing? If Paul were just writing about doing anything his heart desires – as American capitalism inclines us to think – might he have gotten away from being imprisoned (and worse, decapitated)? When we consider the original location in which Paul was writing, we listen more attentively.
Our culture today would like us to think that context does not matter for deriving value from musical content. But Scripture resists a superficial reading. The Spirit summons us to reflect deeper on how context informs the theology of a passage and thus our reading of it. If we apply this sensitivity to music, I believe that we will resist the urge to listen to music as if its context did not matter. The Spirit of God is calling us to listen deeper. We can have a more fulsome connection by at least imagining where the music was created originally, if not actually learning about where it was created. If we listen to music like we read Scripture, I think that we will have a more fulsome connection with the artist, because recording an album in New York is different than recording in Chicago, which is different than recording in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Even if it’s the same artist, those different contexts matter. Don’t let the digitization era destroy our relationship to geography. Let’s take it upon ourselves to do the hard work of listening closer to where the sounds come from. The One who used sound to create the land around us and the heavens above us will reward us in that effort.
Julian Reid is a son, brother, husband, writer, musician, and educator. He holds a Master of Divinity from Candler School of Theology at Emory University and a Bachelor’s in philosophy from Yale University. He is a member of the genre-bending group The JuJu Exchange. He lives with his wife in Atlanta.
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