A great deal of music is built around a theme and variations. The best jazz musicians, like Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, take a basic tune and extrapolate for seemingly endless repetitions without running out of ideas. Many classical works, such as Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, take a simple motif and expand on it for what seems like hours. Rock guitarists such as Jerry Garcia (was there ever really anyone like Jerry Garcia?) could find nuances in chord progressions that enable them to “compose on the spot” as they allow their creative minds to explore more and more variations upon a single theme. Careful listening to complex music can prevent us from thinking that life is simple, one dimensional, or boring.
Third, music can heighten our experience of tension and release. It can help us feel the depths of pain and heights of joy that we need to feel. It can protect us against emotional numbness. Certain pieces of music create a sense of “unresolvedness” and then provide the resolution rather quickly. Mozart may have been the best at this. In his Eine Kleine Nachtmusik the cycles of tension and release are short. The overall effect helps us feel a sense of order in the universe. That’s why some people tell us we can reorder our brains by listening to Mozart. Pregnant mothers are told to listen to Mozart so their developing babies can grow in a peaceful environment.
Other pieces of music (e.g., the final movement of Sibelius’s Symphony No. 5) extend the tension for so long that, when the resolution finally comes, the exhale feels monumental. In a parallel way, the Bible creates a tension that is resolved only by the cross. It is the tension between holiness (God’s) and sin (ours). We long for righteousness and goodness, and we resonate with it to a certain extent. But we also feel a tension, because we also resonate with the notion that something’s just not right with the world and with us. That tension is resolved only as God’s judgment and grace meet at Calvary. God’s righteous requirement for atonement is satisfied. God’s love provides that atonement. He is both the just and the justifier. Listening to music that highlights tension and release can help us lament more painfully about the evil in our world, repent more thoroughly from the sin in our hearts, and appreciate the gospel more gratefully for our entire lives.
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