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Thoughts from a Musician's Heart


“Poets and philosophers are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” Early 18th-century Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley believed those who held sway over the imagination could change the world. While the philosopher tries to answer life’s most obscure questions with verbal reasoning, the poet, the artist, and the musician ask and answer wordlessly through the imagination. The arts hold a mysterious transcendent power, speaking to us more potently than speech. Shelley knew that the one who could delve into his hearer’s soul wielded the power of persuasion.

Philosophy plays a vital role in shaping composers and their music. No artist—neither Bach, nor Strauss, nor Shelley, nor Van Gogh—lives and creates in a cultural vacuum. And neither you nor I. If you want to know the content of the philosophy of your age—how people answer life’s deepest questions—look at the state of the arts. According to Billboard’s official top 100 music chart, the no. 3 song currently is “Industry Baby” by Lil Nas & Jack Harlow. A brief excerpt from “Industry Baby”:

Couple Grammys on him

Couple plaques, ayy

That's a fact, ayy

Throw it back, ayy

Throw it back, ayy

[other lyrics censored for content]

By way of humorous contrast, one of the most popular songs in the early 19th century was “The Old Oaken Bucket”:

How dear to my heart are the scenes of my childhood,

When fond recollection presents them to view!

The orchard, the meadow, the deep-tangled wildwood,

And every loved spot which my infancy knew.

I cite these two disparate examples to point out the drastic change in our philosophy in the last 200 years, and thus in our art. But the point of this short blog post is not to trace the history of change in popular song, or to lament about cultural entropy. So what am I saying?

I would like to bring before your consideration that we as artists wield tremendous power, and therefore have tremendous responsibility. Philosophy may influence art, but art disseminates that philosophy to the masses. How we answer life’s deepest questions—who is the human person? is there a transcendent being and, if so, what is He like? what is my purpose? is there any truth and how can it be known?—matters. More salient—are we even asking those questions? Or are we unwittingly buying into the spirit of the age, perhaps even the materialist, insatiable lusting after fame of ”Industry Baby”?

You are a musician because you have something to say—else you wouldn’t be here. Every time you perform, write, speak, communicate, you are spreading a message. Know your message. Know the philosophy of the age so you can discern what is worth holding onto and what must be thrown out. Know your philosophy. And spread messages that are noble, right, pure, lovely, and admirable.

“You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again?”

Matthew 5:13 (NIV)

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