When one of my grandsons was about five or six, Christmas brought with it a delightful new mechanism with which to plague the household. He got his own karaoke machine. His parents never offered a rational explanation for it, but it seemed more like an assault on domestic peace and tranquility than a love for music. In the aftermath of the machine’s arrival, the whole definition of sounds that constitute ‘music’ was called into question. There were some touching moments sprinkled here and there amid the recurrent and unpredictable spasms of unbridled vocal passion, but the one that brought his parents to grateful tears was the one when the microphone finally, hopelessly, died.
Karaoke is an interesting phenomenon. Millions get involved in it, both privately and in public places in front of total strangers. Some performers are sober and in fairly good control of their faculties, and some, well…., not so much. Some are genuinely talented singers and others are maybe a little off in their grasp of things like melody, timing – and things ‘not’ to do in public. Either way, they have at least one thing in common. They’re all singing somebody else’s music.
Music is unique to human beings, and there is nothing else quite like it in the world. No culture on earth is free from its influence or impervious to its impact. Among its many fascinating qualities, music is a powerful medium of communication, as attested by the fact that the largest book in the Bible is a songbook. Some of the most profound messages ever delivered have found their way into our songs.
Music moves us beyond language alone and involves our whole being. It kicks our emotional, spiritual, and physical apparatus into gear like nothing else, and has a direct route into that part of our brain associated with long-term memory, thus making it a great teaching mechanism. I can recall, for instance, the melody and every word of a song from a toothpaste commercial dating all the way back to 1957. They haven’t made that brand of toothpaste for 50 years, but I can still sing their song. The power of music is astounding, even frightening.
When we sing a song, or follow along in our heads as someone else sings it, we aren’t just hearing tones and mechanically repeating words. Music is more than that. It invites us not only to hear it, but to ‘feel’ it. Feeling it may not always be a conscious thing, but we’re always vulnerable to music’s power to get deep inside us. Music can delight, depress, instruct, excite, soothe, encourage, inflame, persuade, and more, but on the other hand, it can also lie, seduce, and deceive. Music finds its way into the whole scope of human experience, from heart-pounding celebrations of joy, to sober moments of spiritual reflection, and even to rabble-rousing incentives toward violence. Music has a frightening array of potential possibilities, and incredible power to move and manipulate human hearts and minds.
One of the statements I’ve made so often that it’s become like a verbal tattoo has to do with music. It is simply this: “We must pay careful attention to the message, because no one ever writes a song unless they have something to say”. The message is the point, and it always gets exposed, regardless of whether it is delivered in soft, soothing tones or someone screeches it into your face like a banshee with its pants on fire. (I should confess here that I really don’t know whether banshees actually wear pants . . . , but it sounded good at the moment.) Either way, it rides the sound waves of the composer’s finished product straight into the hearts and minds of those who hear it. Even if they don’t particularly like the song or agree with the message, they are at least exposed to it.
Pastors often pray and labor over a message for days, and many deliver them with all the sincerity and passion they can muster. In spite of that, the overwhelming majority are only heard by a relative few, and only once. Even if the message is well received and applauded, most will not be exposed to it a second time. Composers, on the other hand, may condense their message into a song and have it repeated thousands of times. More than that, the hearers are not simply ‘hearing’ the message, but absorbing it into their bodies and minds, reinforcing it through rhythm and emotional engagement. There’s a lot going on that we may not notice when we decide to sing someone else’s song, isn’t there?
Suppose we treated the contents of songs like we do food. Most food packaging tells us in detail where it came from, what’s in it, and what the nutritional impact on our bodies is likely to be – and most of us see that as a good thing. There may be stuff in hot dogs, for instance, that isn’t good for us (perish the thought), and we’d at least like to know about it. In spite of the content, we might eat a hot dog from time to time anyway and not develop some serious pathological result. But suppose we ingested the bad stuff in hot dogs at a rate and volume comparable to the way our young people (and some of the rest of us) consume music. That would paint a different picture, wouldn’t it? If we were to look at our music playlists, and those of our kids, the same way we do food labels, it might be a sobering experience. Instead of grouping songs into two or three broad categories, suppose we asked precisely what’s being ‘ingested’ when we hear that song. Then suppose we asked how frequently it’s absorbed. Every toxic idea and philosophy currently eroding the heart of our nation is being delivered musically all day, every day, and it pours out of more devices, more often, to more hearts and minds than ever in history. All food isn’t a hot dog, and all music isn’t a moral carcinogen, but we must choose.
All of us don’t do karaoke, but all of us are singing someone else’s music at some point, and someone else’s message is riding the melody when we do. Not knowing what’s in your hot dog might not be smart, but it isn’t likely to result in moral decay. Not choosing our songs wisely is a different matter. David said,
“He has put a new song in my mouth– Praise to our God; Many will see it and fear, and will trust in the LORD” (Psalm 40:3 NKJV)
© 2016 Gallagher’s Pen, Ronald L. Gallagher, Ed.S. All rights reserved.
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