Maeve Louise Heaney, “Intorduction/Meaning In Music”

I was sad reading this book, but as I told my wife, I was bound and determined to finish it.  I had no intention of being defeated by a book.  When I reached the end, I was satisfied that, at the very least, I knew not what to say should I ever try to write about music as theology – Me, “Stuck In The Muddle – Music As Theology: What Music Says About The Word”, April 7, 2014


[T]he question of whether contemporary music can mediate faith, and, if so, how, has a very complex object of interest – music of many genres, styles, with words or without, written in notation form or simply recorded or performed; music that is evaluated and commented on by listeners of all ages, musicians, composers, ministers, theologians, and parish priests.  How can we hope to come to any clarity? Ignoring its complexity and simply exhorting or effusing about the transcendence of music is too simplistic to be helpful. – Maeve Louise Heaney, Music as Theology: What Music Says About The Word, p. 71

Having finished White Hodge’s book on Hip Hop, and thinking about what to read next, I came to the conclusion that the only proper thing to do was to give Haeney’s book another go.  As you can see above, one of the first posts I did was an attempted review of Music as Theology.  There were several things wrong with that original post.  First, I would hardly call what I did “reading”, as days would go by without me even picking up the book. Second, what reading I did, and the subsequent “review” all occurred in the midst of my emotional and psychological crisis.  In other words I just wasn’t in the frame of mind to do the thing properly.  Finally, I recognized that what White Hodge had done was precisely what Heaney had written about.  Heaney had been far more abstract.  White Hodge, however, applied the very questions and criteria that Heaney highlights in her work, asking the same questions, doing the difficult hermeneutical and theological work necessary to mine the meaning of music as a source for God’s Word speaking to us.

When I decided, earlier this week, when I knew I would be finishing White Hodge’s book, to give Heaney another go, I found several videos of her performing original works.  The lyrics to the song above serve as a kind of epigram to the book as a whole.  They also say what can’t be said discursively, which is the mystery of music as theology that she seeks to explore.  I owed her another chance.

The Introduction and first chapter are, by and large, what one would expect from a published doctoral dissertation: an explanation of the theme, its sources both in personal and intellectual biography, an outline of the structure of the work, including name-dropping scholars whose work informs both the questions to be asked as well as giving clues to possible answers.  The first chapter, covering both musicology and ethnomusicology and finding them both, as she writes “young sciences” (p. 27), and her critique of both resembles, in many ways, comments Karl Popper makes about the questionable nature of psychology in the early- and mid-20th centuries, when there were still debates over foundations and methods.  With musicology, however, she notes that the disputes lie precisely at the heart of the questions she seeks to ask – about how it is music can convey meaning, specifically meaning about the revelation of God in Jesus Christ, the heart of the Christian profession of faith.  Writing about early musicologist and philosopher Susanne Langer, Heaney says on page 33:

[I]t is precisely our lack of understanding of how language and symbols work which causes confusion when we try to “talk about” music and what it means.  Music is a symbolic, or indeed, semiotic form, as we shall develop in chapter 3.  That music has a powerful effect on human feeling is, perhaps, not a surprise, but Langer attempts to describe just the relationship between the two can be articulated.

By noting that the question of meaning in music leads one back, first, to meaning in language, we find ourselves in the midst of another area of dispute among linguists, philosophers, and semioticians.  “Meaning” then, becomes disputed territory, territory through which she will attempt to cut by remaining focused on the question of meaning, specifically theological meaning, in music.  As such she limits her discussions to musicologists whose work passes over particular disputes in music, such as whether there is such a thing as “Absolute” music – music which has no meaning except for those internal relations among its various parts – moving instead to those whose work creates a series of questions about meaning  that will be the focus of attention for the rest of the work.  Specifically, those questions deal with matters that should be familiar to anyone schooled in modern and post-modern philosophical and theological thought: questions about social location, about the privileged position of notated Western music in the musicological canon, and matters of whether meaning lies within music itself, or is something the listener brings to the music.

In fact, in Chapter 2, she answers that last question by highlighting what she calls a “Tripartite” model for a theological hermeneutic of music, in which the music itself, the performer, and the listener all have roles in discovering the meaning of any particular piece of music.  I am getting ahead of myself here, but there is a reason for that.  First, what Adorno was doing three-quarters of a century ago is, in many ways, not so much meaningless as it is no longer applicable, at least in whole.  Rather than focus attention on the art music of late modernity, and how it represents in itself the contradictions of that era, Heaney wants to look at “music” far more broadly.  While certainly attentive to matters of socio-historical context, as her primary interest is theological, the socio-historical context becomes just one of a set of categories in need of understanding if we are to come to an understanding of music as theology.

In that sense, returning to Heaney’s work, immediately following first Adorno, then White Hodge, I find myself in the midst of a kind of mediation, or perhaps integration, of approaches, one complementing the other, even as Heaney’s work tends to be more abstract even than Adorno’s.  Rather than dreading what’s coming, I look forward to my return to this work,