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I Write the Songs – Matthew 11:16-17


After lauding the accomplishments of John the Baptist, Jesus lambasts his generation by echoing the words of a children’s ditty: “We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn.” This is a “something’s wrong with this picture” type of rhyme. It’s a poem that reflects awareness of the effect that music is supposed to have on individuals. It’s a Jazz funeral nightmare: nobody sheds a tear when the orchestra’s dirge-laden, slightly dissonant chords of  “Just a Closer Walk with Me” evoke a cloud over the funeral procession. And not even the neutral stragglers in the “second line” shake a leg when the corpse has been committed to the crypt and the band strikes up a raucous rendition of “When the Saints Go marching In.”

Jesus is bewildered by the unresponsive posture of the staid generation. He is perplexed that they are so ardently hardened that their artistic senses have become frozen. He feels the children’s frustration. He identifies with their sense of defeat. Something is supposed to happen when music is played. People are programmed to respond!

Physiological and Psychological Effects

In our twenty-first century empirical age, it has been indisputably demonstrated that humans respond to music—even if the response is on the subconscious level. The physiological power of music has been repeatedly demonstrated in experiments that utilize melodies and rhythms to control heart rate and speed recovery. The psychological potency has also been proven by measuring the effects of music on mood and memory. Countless studies have been presented on the so called “Mozart Effect” that demonstrates superior academic performance and intellectual maturity among children who are exposed to certain types of music at an early age.

The psychological phenomenon has received special attention from Daniel Levitin, author of This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession, and director of the Levitin Laboratory for Music Perception, Cognition and Expertise at McGill University in Montreal. Levitin purports that a particular piece of music has the ability to evoke a similar emotion in listeners, although they may be separated by time and space. The emotive power of music is also recognized by Chinese philosopher Confucius who reportedly remarked: “Music produces a kind of pleasure which human nature cannot do without.”

Pneumatological Effect

As I reviewed the various theories on the psychological effect of music, I couldn’t help but think that the secular academy is at a serious disadvantage when studying this topic. In one sense–particularly in the academic setting–music may appear to be a cognitive discipline that relates more to our psychological development. However, we would be woefully amiss if we did not consider its power over the pneumatological–the spiritual. Who knows if this is not what Napoleon Bonaparte was referencing when he offered the challenge: “Give me control over he who shapes the music of a nation, and I care not who makes the laws.”

Indeed, Paul in 1 Thess 5:23 reminds us that we are tridimensional. We are πνευμα, σομα και ψυχη: spirit, body, and soul. Whether we are aware of it or not, each dimension is shaped by our choices. Our physiology is affected by diet and exercise. Our psychology is influenced by education and socialization. Our spirituality is determined by the rituals and religious exercises that inform our faith. Nonetheless, although each dimension is distinct, there is an intricate interdependence among the three. It is well known that although a person’s caloric diet is primarily directed to the development of the physical, it can also affect the psychological and the spiritual. Similarly, religious rituals that aim to strengthen our spirit can also impact the psychological and physiological dimensions of our beings.

With the awareness of the spiritual power of music, Christian musicologists and musicians have a distinct advantage over those who simply approach it as an art. They are able to see that music does not only impact the body and mind–the corpus and mens–but also the spiritus–the spirit.

I Write the Songs

Indeed, this was Bruce Johnston’s belief when in1975 he penned the lyrics to the popular hit, “I Write the Songs.” Several “big” names from this disco era offered their renditions of Johnston’s composition–David Cassidy, Johnny Mathis, Tom Jones–but it was Barry Manilow who made it a hit.

A passive listener may assume that the song lauds the artistic and manipulative skills of the songwriter. However, listen with a bit more care and it becomes clear that this is actually an ode to the “spirit” of music:

I’ve been alive forever, And I wrote the very first song

I put the words and the melodies together, I am music and I write the songs


I write the songs that make the whole world sing

I write the songs of love and special things

I write the songs that make the young girls cry

I write the songs, I write the songs.

The very term “music” has spiritual connotations. It is derived from the Greek μουσικη–the art of the muses. Greek mythology references nine μουσαι, the daughters of the chief god of the Roman pantheon, Zeus and one of his consorts, Mnemosyne (Hesiod, Theogyny). These nine muses were spirits who were believed to enliven the creative imaginations of people who are gifted for the arts.

From a theological perspective, this concept may at first appear to be disconcerting. Given the etymology of the term, one could easily craft a convincing argument for the rejection of the term “music” among professed Christians. Indeed, the few times the word is used in the Bible it is with reference to pagan music. However, when Hesiod wrote his Theogony and heralded the muses as the offspring of Zeus and Mnemosyne, he was simply recognizing that music was a phenomenon that could not have been devised by mere human genius. It is not–as some evolutionary scientists believe–the result of primitive pre-speech forms of communication. The fact that it is able to penetrate the innermost soul and evoke a wide array of emotions can only be attributed to a supernatural source.

Conduits for Music

Music in its pure unadulterated form is God’s gift to humanity. Indeed, when Yahweh responds to the direly decimated Job he taunted, “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth…, when the morning stars sang together and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy?” Music was around before Adam’s laryngeal prominence produced the resonant bass that complemented Eve’s natural soprano.

And as we rehearse the history of salvation, and anticipate its destiny, we see that music is the constant refrain. Miriam led the praise team after the miraculous delivery from Pharaoh’s army and David penned scores of scores to the glory of his Maker. Paul and Silas sang songs of hope in a murky Roman prison cell. In the epistles, we are encouraged to minister to one another in “psalms, hymns and spiritual songs.”And when we finally cross the threshold of the New Jerusalem, the redeemed will perform for the angelic hosts as we resound the anthem of Moses and the Lamb: “Great and Marvelous are thy works O Lord God Almighty!”

Notwithstanding, the fact that music originated in the boundless mind of the Creator does not mean that all music is acceptable praise. God created the medium of music as a conduit for us to receive his blessings and return our thanks. Music is supposed to be a perfect gift that enlivens our senses and directs us to the Creator. However, the devil has established his own defective conduit. It pales in comparison to the original, but through this conduit he channels songs of deception and destruction; songs that are destined to spread his malignant influence.

Satan’s plans are revealed in the second verse of Johnston’s song:

My home lies deep within you

And I’ve got my own place in your soul

Now, when I look out through your eyes

I’m young again, even though I’m very old


I write the songs that make the whole world sing

I write the songs of love and special things

I write the songs that make the young girls cry

I write the songs, I write the songs

Yes, as we look throughout history, we see him writing the songs. In the book of Daniel, it is the musicians who set the mood for the idolatrous worship of the golden image on the Plain of Dura. In the orgastic religion of Canaan it is music that elevated the hedonistic worshipers to the point of moral abandon. And even as Babylon falls in Revelation 18, among those who partake in her punitive destruction are the sensuous musicians who helped her to lull humanity into a state of complacency.


And he continues to write songs. Songs that degrade our daughters, sisters and mothers. Songs that glorify violence. Songs that prematurely arouse hormones and lead to illicit unions. Songs that confuse love with lust. Songs that convey unbiblical theological themes. Songs that lead the gullible down the paths of unrighteousness and invite them to pitch their tents in the valley of death.

As you perform a mental inventory of your music catalog, who’s writing your songs? As you ponder this question, I remind you of Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 10:31–“Whether therefore you eat or drink, or whatsoever you do, do it all to the glory of God.” Let Him write your songs.

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