by Charlie Peacock –

I have at least two qualifications for writing on the subject of how to make the most of a concert experience. One, I’ve given concert performances (on some level) for thirty-eight years. Secondly, I’ve done a bit of study and writing on the subject (in the context of what it means to follow Jesus as his student/follower). That said, let’s begin with the listener. I think it’s imperative that listeners have some critical understanding of their motivations and expectations for attending a concert. Identifying these, even in a somewhat ad hoc fashion gives the listener a starting place. This is important. For example, attending a concert in order to participate in a common cultural gathering with the purpose of seeing your friends, is an entirely different starting place for knowing than attending with the expectation of being astonished by truth, beauty, and excellence. Our varied expectations and motivations are never neutral. We ought to arrive at a concert ready to be fully human. That is, we ought to be people who allow the music to engage their whole being—body, intellect, imagination, image-bearing capacity, and for Christians, the indwelling Spirit of God. This is not to say a person can’t attend a concert to be entertained, as the term is commonly understood. Nevertheless, followers of Jesus are in the business of learning a much larger and comprehensive way of being human in the world— one that allows for playful enjoyment and so much more. And it’s the so much more that is worth discussing.

Music is commonly split into the categories of rhythm, melody and harmony (and lyric when applicable). Each of these, in its own way, can and ought to affect the listener. However, to stop at these three or four would be an oversimplification. While musicians perform a composition using these essential elements, there are all sorts of other important things happening as well. They are: the instrumentation used to make the rhythm, melody, and harmony, the quality or character of the sound produced by various instruments, the size and design of the room in which the music is made, the imprint of amplification on the sound (if amplification is used), the size and enthusiasm of the audience, and the intentionality of the composer, lyricist, and performer. These active, intentional choices (and some tacit ones too) are embedded in the musical, lyrical, and performance choices. Some of these choices are archived in human memory, some in music storage technologies some as a musical score, and some are improvisation. These and others play into our perception and reception of music—that is, how we receive it sonically-speaking, and in the case of live performance, visually as well.

It’s important to remember, that just as there is no neutral starting place for a listener as a “knower” of music, there is no neutral action in the making of music either. Every choice made, right down to the meal a vocalist had for lunch, can affect the concert outcome. The average listener may not be able to discern all these choices, and honestly it would be silly to attempt to. Still, a greasy hamburger will produce a particular vocal sound, generally more open, while a glass of ice water right before performing will tighten up the vocal chords, producing a more choked sound.

The take-away is this: music performance is made up of a multitude of choices, those made by the artist, songwriter, instrumentalist, etc., and those made by the listeners as they choose how they will participate, and at what human level they will allow themselves to be engaged as personal knowers.

When listening to music, one of the first things a person does, particularly in our consumer-driven culture, is to identify the particular music’s place in present culture or history (e.g., Is it jazz, classical, gospel?). This is generally not a conscious choice on the part of the listener, but rather something that happens as learned, consumer behavior. From a cultural/historical standpoint, it’s good to be able to identify the roots of various kinds of music style and composition. However, an unfortunate byproduct of this ability, at least in our time, is that people compulsively categorize things. This is not so that they can better understand them, but rather so they can quickly stereotype them, and accept or reject them based on already established, often rigidly held categories. For example, if a young woman has already decided she does not like Country music, and one of the earmarks of Country music is a fiddle and a dobro, she may dismiss a great artist such as Allison Krauss before giving the music a fair listen.

Knowing the inevitability of categorization, go ahead and locate the music and it’s place in history (alt rock, Chant, café orchestra). Then, rather than rejecting it if it fails to match up with your favorite style, or accepting it simply because it does, instead remain open to the music. It’s in this place of intentional openness that you can practice true musical discernment, critique, and yes, full enjoyment (if the music is deserving).

So what does this discernment look like? First, ask a general question: how does the music affect the whole of your being? This is the beginning of musical discernment. Does it reach the intellect, spark one’s imagination, stir the heart and emotions, or move your body? Engage with the music. Some people will say, I don’t know about any of that, I just know it’s good and I like it. This common response deserves a little attention. Despite all our human attempts at codifying what is or isn’t good music, it is still the individual knower who makes this personal decision. And it is usually true that once we’ve gathered together some personal ideas about what we think good music is, we tend to gather in like-minded tribes who share our aesthetic and moral understanding.

People who profess to follow Jesus have a greater responsibility for the care and enjoyment of music than those outside the Jesus family. We are called to hold all things together by the wisdom of Messiah. This means caring to know how a particular music affects one’s whole being and caring to know what God’s revelation says about what is or isn’t good. So, second, you should ask:

Is the way the music affects my whole being consistent with God’s revelation?

There is much to be written, prayed over, studied, and discussed on this subject. This will have to serve as a very basic introduction, the responsibility falling to the reader to faithfully continue to explore what it means to honor God in all things, including the use and enjoyment of music in a concert setting. AJ

Charlie Peacock is a producer, musician, and author of At The Crossroads, New Way To Be Human, and contributor to such books as It Was Good–Making Art To The Glory of God, and More Like the Master—A Christian Musician’s Reader.