The Discovery of a Tune

“Play me a tune.”

Sometimes a new song comes on the radio, and we get a kind of deja vu, as if we have always known the song, even if we have never heard it before. Of course, sometimes that’s because of the formulaic nature of pop songs. But not all successful songs follow the formula, yet they have that almost mystical familiarity, like you’re remembering a dream.

These songs resonate deeply with us, the moment we first hear them. In fact, that word, “resonated” really captures what I’m talking about: a tuning fork resonates when it catches the musical vibrations that are all around it. That’s how these songs “feel”, like the musician has “caught” them. And when we hear them, we “catch” them.

crowd at concert

Amazingly, this quality can be found across genres – this sense that the song is timeless, like it always was there. It’s in AC/DC’s opening guitar of “Thunderstruck”, or Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus”; it’s in the piano opening of John Lennon’s “Imagine” and in Isaac Watts’ “Joy to the World”; it’s in the opening riff of Aretha Franklin’s “Respect” and in Coldplay’s “Clocks”.

Often, these songs seem old and young at the same time: sure, the music may be from an era long past. But it’s more than that. It’s that sense that they don’t ever become “stale” – there will always be people who love these songs. They will always retain a youthful energy when heard. At the same time, it’s hard to imagine there was ever a time without them. If somebody says there was once a universe in which Europe’s “The Final Countdown” didn’t exist, it seems strange, almost impossible. It always existed, surely it did.

The musician then, isn’t so much a writer, as a miner who discovers musical gold; or an explorer, who discovers a new musical land. Chris Martin talked about this sense of discovering the piano tune underlying “Clocks” in a documentary on Coldplay a few years ago.

Coldplay are famous for discovering songs like this, that feel like they have been “hidden” all along, since eternity. But for others, it feels as if the tune was given to them, for them to do as they will – sometimes they merged it with some of the silliest lyrics imaginable (again, “The Final Countdown” comes to mind). But sometimes, they honour the gift they have been given, by fashioning the tune into something noble, or poignant, or beautiful.

An atheist cannot think like this. There is no eternity to songs. They are not discovered, they are merely constructs formed in a human mind. From a scientific perspective, there are no songs. There are just sounds. They are vibrations, no more. There is no real beauty in music, that is merely a construct of our subjective minds. I’m not saying atheists can’t “catch” such tunes – Lennon’s “Imagine” is an atheist anthem, and yet certainly has this quality. But they think they “write” songs, they don’t “discover” them, let alone be given them.

But most of us don’t feel like that. Listen to your favourite songs, and see if you do. Most of us sense this denial of discovery, and even of gift in music, is rather arrogant. This is one of those big flaws in atheism, that will always draw people to some sense of deity.

Admittedly, that may not be the Christian deity. However, it is true that Christian musicians have always felt this way. Handel, who we already mentioned, certainly did. Bach did. Palestrina did. Thomas Dorsey did. Matt Redman does. Sometimes they did indeed “make” songs, and pretty much all of those were terrible. But just now and then, they found a song, waiting for them. And they identified the gift in the song, with the Giver of all beauty: a very musical God, Who in the Bible sings the universe into existence; Who makes the biggest book in the Bible a hymnbook; and Who ends the Bible with all humanity singing His praises, with eternal songs, for all eternity.

Matt Gray


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