What's Neutral, Anyway?

Until relatively recently, musicians and scientists felt a closer connection to God's creation. Creature comforts such as Music were seen (and heard) as extensions of nature (or science), and both were joyous reminders of our God's benevolent gifts. Our concept of universal harmony--our Weltanschauung--was Biblical, correlating the order of creation (from the "music of the spheres" with God's boundless wisdom. The philosophical foundations of Music Theory were, until recently, predicated on the search for universal truths.

Only in the last 50 years have we witnessed a strenuous but prolonged effort to divide these disciplines; now in 2014 it's all but assumed that Music (and value or taste therein) is entirely contingent upon cultural context. The argument is strongly imprinted in our minds; that since Musical style is completely arbitrary and contextual, it's foolish to try to posit one style as being "more appropriate" than another. Your choices are as good as mine, and no one should suggest otherwise.

For the Church, this signifies a tremendous shift in what's allowed in the Divine Service.

What Does Nature Say?

God's plan of creation is at odds with this kind of thinking. This article popped up in my newsfeed today:


These data provide the most rigorous empirical evidence to date of a bird song that makes use of the same mathematical principles that underlie Western and many non-Western musical scales, demonstrating surprising convergence between human and animal “song cultures.” Although there is no evidence that the songs of most bird species follow the overtone series, our findings add to a small but growing body of research showing that a preference for small-integer frequency ratios is not unique to humans. These findings thus have important implications for current debates about the origins of human musical systems and may call for a reevaluation of existing theories of musical consonance based on specific human vocal characteristics.

So we're at a strange juncture in musical history. From a critical perspective, it's fashionable to deride the significance of traditional music ("it's all cultural, its was good for their time, etc.") -- regarding, for example, 16th-century hymnody with the same disinsterest as we'd regard a 1980s-era VCR.

The old questions ("How does Music work? What makes one type of Music better or more appropriate than another") are avoided, but studies like this reveal that deep within our biological and natural encodings, the genius of the Creator simmers, even in the distant sounds of birds.