Mysteries Of The Bible: What Is The Connection Between The Bible And Pop Music

Many readers of this blog will know that I write at some length about both the Bible and popular music.  It was only a matter of time, I suppose, before the two would be discussed in some detail, even though there would appear at first to be little connection between the two.  Although I have previously discussed Christian Contemporary music on several occasions, and even Gnostic Contemporary music [1], it is not the religious content of certain genres of music, but rather the phenomenon of pop music itself that I wish to discuss here.  Pop music has the feeling of being contemporary, and it is difficult for many to conceive of there being a deep relationship between the earwormy music of popular artists and the writings of the Bible, even for those who are aware of the deep importance of music within the Bible itself, particularly (but not only) in the book of Psalms.

What makes music popular, aside from the obvious fact that people tend to like it?  There appears to be a certain set of qualities that tend to make certain music “pop” music, even if that music does not happen to be popular but merely aspires to be without actually succeeding at it.  For one, the music tends to have a particular sort of verse-chorus form, and it often is written with hooks that make it more memorable.  In addition, it may often include samples of previously released music to give it an advantage in being memorable by triggering vague but positive memories of more obscure but tuneful songs from the past.  These elements hold true regardless of whether the pop music is written with genres like rap, R&B, dance, adult contemporary, jazz, or country in mind.  Even if a song is somewhat unusual for its time, it may often become popular in part because it fits along somewhat well alongside its neighbors.  The late 1990’s, for example, were known for a variety of happy songs of different genres, but they played well together on the radio and all became popular songs.  The same could be said for the contemporary trends in bro-country with the genre-blending of rap and country as well as the pervasive popularity and influence of electronic dance music that makes many contemporary songs blend well together even if they are aimed at somewhat different audiences.

What could samples and hooks have to do with the Bible, though?  It happens that, as a student of history might suspect, that the songs of the Bible exhibit many of the same tendencies as popular music.  For example, readers who are familiar with the immensely repetitive tendency of pop music to repeat the same refrains over and over again, songs like “Imma Be” by the Black-Eyed Peas may not be aware of the fact that the Bible has its own songs that are equally repetitive, and repetitive for the same reasons, namely to be memorable and hooky.  Perhaps the most obvious example of this is Psalm 136, which has 26 verses, all of which begin with a statement and close with “For His mercy endures forever.”  Some examples of this call and response go as follows, taking the first nine verses:

Oh, give thanks to the Eternal, for He is good!
For His mercy endures forever.
Oh, give thanks to the God of gods!
For His mercy endures forever.
Oh, give thanks to the Lord of lords!
For His mercy endures forever:
To Him who alone does great wonders,
For His mercy endures forever;
To Him who by wisdom made the heavens,
For His mercy endures forever;
To Him who laid out the earth above the waters,
For His mercy endures forever;
To Him who made great lights,
For His mercy endures forever–
The sun to rule by day,
For His mercy endures forever;
The moon and the stars to rule by night,
For His mercy endures forever.

This is clearly the work of someone who wants a point to be remembered, namely the fact that God’s mercy endures forever.  Just like a listener to the Black Eyed Peas would be informed over and over again, and would not be able to ignore, that Will.i.am was claiming to be a bee in their song, so too anyone who listened to or sang Psalm 136 would not be able to ignore the anonymous psalmist’s claim that God’s mercy endures forever.  Whether or not that claim is something the listener or reader agrees with, that claim is made inescapable by being hooky and somewhat repetitive, likely with the same music played each time as a reminder of this.

If this were the only connection between the Bible and pop music it would be a rather tenuous connection, but there are others that demonstrate the enduring patterns of music and how it is dealt with in both the Bible and contemporary music.  Several psalms in the same section of scripture, namely Psalms 53, 56, 57, 58, 59, and 60, all show “samples” of the popular music of the time that they were sent to.  Although the melodies to “Mahalath,” “Do Not Destroy,” and “The Lily Of the Testimony” are lost to us, seeing as we do not have any record of the music of the tabernacle or first or second temple periods when the music was being written and compiled and originally performed, we do know that these references are the ancient equivalent of copyright notices and sample credits, to let the Levitical musicians of the temple know that the song’s music had not been written by the psalmist but was instead set to another tune written by someone else.

Seeing that this tendency was already present in the Bible to sample or remix or cover different songs, however one wants to phrase it, how did this tendency survive into contemporary pop?  In many ways, this tendency to continually reinterpret existing music in new genres and with new perspectives has never left us.  The bards of the ancient world sang familiar songs that each bard elaborated based on their own memory and artistic merit.  The classical composers of the nationalistic period of the late 19th and early 20th century, including such greats as Greig, Sibelius, Liszt, and Copeland, interpreted folk songs into classical music, turning the low art of the common people of a given people into the high art of music for orchestras to play in fashionable concert halls.  In turn, pop musicians have mined folk music and classical music and biblical music for such songs as “Cotton Eyed Joe,” Eric Carmen’s “All By Myself,” and the haunting “Turn, Turn, Turn” by the Byrds, among many other such examples.

All of this ought to give us at least some indication of the similarities between the aims of biblical music and pop music, as well as some notable differences.  Both biblical music and pop music want to be remembered.  They want to be memorable, to stick inside of our minds and to get us to sing the songs over and over again in our heads and want to hear them again.  For pop music, the hook may not be associated with music of great profundity, but even where we suspect this is the case, the writing of songs often has a great deal of depth that we are all too quick to pass over and ignore.  This is also the case with biblical psalms, which are often written with a great deal of personal and emotional depth as well as spiritual insight.  The psalms of the Bible, however they may be used by us today, were written as music, to be performed and sung, and should be viewed accordingly, even if they are useful for devotional materials even as song lyrics can be useful to examine and critique from a literary perspective.  We must never forget, though, that songs were meant to be sung, and often meant to be memorable for us to sing to ourselves even when the orchestra and choir was no longer around, the messages of the songs bouncing around inside of our heads and informing our hearts accordingly, just as all good music does.

[1] See, for example:

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2011/10/04/pm-dawn-and-the-gnostic-revival/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2011/08/17/the-devils-music-christian-contemporary-music-and-its-critics/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2013/09/15/why-arent-they-in-the-rock-roll-hall-of-fame-amy-grant/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2013/06/02/why-arent-they-in-the-rock-roll-hall-of-fame-pat-boone/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2013/07/25/emerys-complaint/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2012/09/21/behind-the-eyes/

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in Bible, Biblical History, Christianity, History, Music History, Musings, Psalms and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Mysteries Of The Bible: What Is The Connection Between The Bible And Pop Music

  1. Admin says:

    I am not even kidding you, I was thinking about this exact same thing today as I was hanging drywall and listening to a friends uniquely “Israelite” pop music playlist.

    I noticed how many of his songs have the pattern of repetition and memorable hooks and lyrics that get stuck in your head.

    I agree that the characteristic seen in pop music and the Psalms is interesting. I was thinking that this is precisely why Western music is so memorable compared to other nations’ music.

    I always used to say that the KJV Bible read so well. In particular, the Psalms in that version lend themselves incredibly well to memorization. When I was younger I had many of them memorized because I would listen to acapella renditions that made them get even more ‘sticky’. As a result I still spin these Psalms in my head sometimes

    The music we are hearing in today’s Laodicean era is just as sticky as ever. Although its all rebellious, nevertheless the unique touch of Israelite musical qualities are there; just as much as the odd time signatures and other characteristics from the pagan nations America is emulating and borrowing from. Great post!

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