Beauty and Function

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Listening to music for pleasure was an unknown concept in the ancient world. Performances were thoroughly context-bound, and music had little value outside of the undertaking for which it was used. This functional essence is captured in the Bible, which depicts singing and instrument playing as activity-supporting efforts, and refrains from affixing adjectives to the music itself. Though the authors freely reported that music was made, we are left to guess whether it was heard as soaring, jarring, quieting, rousing or something else. Music was present and appreciated in biblical society, but was it aesthetically appealing?

The closest the Bible comes to answering this question is when it calls King David the “sweet singer of Israel” (2 Sam. 23:1). This designation suggests that David’s voice was regarded for its sweetness, and points to a broader appreciation of pleasant sonorities. Yet this is the only time the Bible states a preference for pleasing tones. Elsewhere we read of singers specially selected for public rituals. We find music accompanying joyous celebrations. We encounter instruments marking grand occasions. But outside of this verse, music is not given aesthetic attention.

Still, we should not presume that beauty and function were mutually exclusive in the music of biblical times. Were it not for an attraction to music, Israel would have never employed it in support of non-musical activities. Qualitative labels are absent, but there was an awareness of music’s ability to satisfy the human need for artistic stimulation. It is, then, best to view music of the Bible as a utilitarian art form: utilitarian in purpose, artistic in design. This is analogous to items of modern-day life that combine utility and allure, such as clothing, silverware, packaging, appliances and automobiles.

By definition, music is artistic in all its permutations. There are at least nine reasons for this, drawn from the philosophy of art. Music is a product of human creativity. It is made for human consumption. It is comprised of sensuous material (sound). It is perceived through the senses to which it is addressed. It is created in response to a guiding idea or vision of the whole. It conveys unity and completeness. It cannot be replicated in precisely the same way. It can be judged in terms of excellence. And it is perceived as separate from ordinary things.

These rules apply to all music, whether aesthetics is a primary or tangential concern. Concert music, for instance, is supposed to be appreciated on its artistic merits, while a lullaby is a means to an end. But even the simplest lullaby can be assessed on the basis of beauty, both in terms of composition and presentation. The principle was true in the ancient world as it is today: whatever music’s reason for being, aesthetics plays a role in our experience of it.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

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