First, I hold that Faith is created in us by the workings of the Holy Spirit through the Means of Grace (Word and Sacrament). Any discussion below on 'meaning' has nothing to do with this gracious act. Here I'm talking mainly about absolute music--simply notes--and not what's present in (or missing from) any particular texts or lyrics.
Second, I realize I'm not doing Science, critical theory, or even Music any favors in this post. The "broad brush of blogdom" demands it. My goal here is instead to point out that the dismissive role ascribed to music in certain circles may be unhelpful when attempting to address the effects of music on its listeners.
What "certain circles" might these be? Those who believe music carries no meaning and that its effect is entirely subjective. The thinking goes:
This argument (borrowed from our familiar enemy, critical [sic] theory) has been used ad infinitum in books, classes, scholarly papers--and churches, around the world. In the past 30 years or so, we've come to believe that all art is only meaningful within the context of a culture, and that music only makes sense insofar as it references some other piece of music. I'm not ready to say these people are totally wrong, but I will say that the argument can be misapplied; the card can be overplayed.
The result (or perhaps the motivation) is the complete rejection of tradition; not just traditional music, but traditional ways of thinking about music. By invoking the "everything is subjective" argument, anyone can become a critic--all opinions are equally valid.
How We Used To Talk about Rock
Consider how this thinking has affected our perspective on rock music. There was a time when rock was rejected by the church--and certainly regarded unsuitable for worship--on the basis of the music itself. There just seemed to be something intrinsically bad about the music. Namely, the "beat."
You can still find examples of this kind of thinking, even in 2012:
"The sexuality of music is usually referred to in terms of rhythm it is the beat that commands a directly physical response." Music with the heavy, hard beat got the name "Rock and Roll" when a disc jockey coined the term from sex in the back seat of a car. "The rock beat is Satan's sound of lawlessness. The rock beat is musical perversion. Every knowledgeable musician knows that the term 'rock' really means a shameful act of lust." But that is not the only problem! The beat of rock is nothing new. Pagan, animistic tribes had the "rock beat" long before it came to America. They use the driving beat to get "high" and bring them into an altered state of consciousness. "Traditional drumming and dancing techniques are designed to achieve the Shamanic State of Consciousness." You see, the beat "is a vehicle for demon infestation."
You'd have a hard time getting anyone to buy this perspective nowadays, though I can recall a time (in the late 1970s) when it was prevalent and controversial. Over the years, people's resistance to the music has eroded, and now within a single generation, we hear this same music in worship services. Regardless of what the camel's nose in the tent was, we can be certain that the subjectivist/relativist aesthetic is partly responsible.
The Beat and Our Bodies
The link between "the rhythm" and a "physical response," I'm learning, is generally assumed in science. The existence of disciplines of Music Therapy and Psychoacoustics suggest that there exist a set of possible relationships between the physical phenomenon of the sound act, our brains, and our bodies.
Today I found this article on an invention the "Musical Heart." This is an iPhone application that uses biofeedback. Music of certain tempos is selected based on its ability to affect the user's heart rate, "...playing fast-paced music for hard workouts, and slowing the beat for cool-downs."
Recall another, related discussion (http://kerygmusic.com/classical-music-and-animals.html), and our mention of Chomsky, whose (now unfashionable) theories of a "Universal Grammar" attempted to link language to the physical world.
If it can be proven that certain music can cause physological responses in our bodies, what happens to the "everything is subjective" argument? I wouldn't say it destroys subjectivity, but it does force the subjectivist to cede some ground and alter the original position, perhaps thusly:
(I'd add that the interesting part in this argument may actually start with the assertion, "Since music cannot carry meaning," a negative assertion that cannot be proven.)
The "music is purely subjective" argument may only be partially valid, for if we can prove a single relationship between heard music and our physical being (which seems easy enough to do), is it possible that other relationships exist (like between reverb and the sensation of space?)
What threshold of 'proof' is necessary for us to pay such correspondences any heed?
Music used to obtain an "altered state" is documented in the body of ethnomusicological research. What questions have those researchers asked?