Why We Listen to Music

With my heart warmed by a glass of cheap red wine, my cozy apartment sheltering me in light that keeps the cold darkness at bay, and my husband gone for the evening, leaving me to my own devices, I begin to contemplate how we enjoy music.

To truly enjoy music, one must understand it. This rings true for most things in life. It is difficult for us to like something, to lose ourselves in pure happiness when we do not understand it. On the other hand, to truly understand something, often we must first enjoy it. It is a strange contradiction.

Music and Poetry

Consider poetry. I’ve recently learned how to understand poetry better. Poetry must be enjoyed. “That’s pure poetry,” we joke when something is particularly pleasing to us; when the written word, in whatever form it takes, brings us happiness (happiness or joy—they are synonyms that I use interchangeably). To truly understand poetry, one must dwell on it, roll the words around on one’s tongue like a particularly delicious chocolate. One must take it in slowly, bit by bit, contemplating it throughout the banal existence of a Tuesday, until one has an inkling of understanding some part of the poem.  

Music is much the same. Like poetry, it follows established rules and conventions (and then artfully breaks those rules and conventions). Music, like the language that comprises poetry, includes grammar, punctuation, syntax, and articulate thoughts. One can only thoroughly enjoy music, can only gain happiness from music, when one understands and makes sense of the sound. To understand and make sense of it, one must dwell on it. This dwelling on music can take the form of formalized training or, more simply, listening—merely listening.

But what a chore it is to listen. We are visual creatures. Are we watching a show with visible characters talking to us? We will listen. We’ll even laugh at the appropriate moments, like when Netflix asks us if we’re still watching (of course we are). Is there a well-curated PowerPoint? Oh yes, I am tuned in to your presentation now. Are there instruments playing that I can see? Good. It’s why I find videos of ensembles performing classical music to play for my students as much as possible instead of playing only the audio. And, lest we forget, the Word became flesh. Unseen God became seen man for the sake of we visual creatures.  

The Sound of Music

Nevertheless, the essence of music is sound. The original instrument is the human voice—no strings, keys, or valves to be seen. We must stop and listen to it. Stop. And listen. Even while we are the ones performing, we must always listen. Beethoven continued to write music even after going deaf because he knew how it would sound. And to understand, we must dwell on that sound. We must soak it in, play it on repeat, consider how absurd it is that our favorite part of a piece could be all of two notes—because those two notes sound beautiful. They give us happiness. And as we dwell on that music, we learn to love it. We love that which we know; we know music by listening to it.

How much more so should we stop and listen to the Word of God? Stop. And listen. Dwell on it. Dwell on it so that we know it better than we know the corners of our childhood home or our favorite ice cream flavors. We must soak it in, listen to it repeatedly. Truly, it gives us happiness, the ultimate joy, the joy of Christ. And as we dwell on the Word of God, we learn to love it. We love that which we know. We know the Word of God by reading it and by listening to it. Once again, we enjoy it by understanding it, but we can only understand it by enjoying it, taking it in, and contemplating it. Dwelling on it both on a glorious Sunday morning in church, surrounded by a community, and also on a tired weeknight while doing dishes or vacuuming with only our spouse in the next room. 

Like a glass of red wine, like all good things that God has given us, we set out to enjoy music slowly. We take our time with it. We contemplate it. We don’t rush it.

And the true joy, the true happiness, is that music is a reflection of the ultimate happiness, the ultimate good. For, in the end, we will take our time because we will have eternity. We will dwell in the presence of the Word Himself. We cannot possibly rush anything. For we will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

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Written by

Marie Greenway

Marie Greenway has worked and volunteered as a church musician since childhood. She graduated from Hillsdale College with a degree in music and was formerly the music teacher at Immanuel Lutheran School in Alexandria, Virginia. Now, she has shifted from spending the day teaching other people’s children to spending the days and nights raising her own. Marie continues to stay involved at school by teaching piano lessons and coordinating the after-school music lesson program. When she is not teaching lessons, answering emails, or changing diapers, Marie loves to go on walks, read books, sight-read music, hang out with her husband, and risk all dignity earning smiles from her daughter.

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