Music and the Sound of Good & Evil

Fellow Feeling

I really like Porter Robinson’s music, particularly his Worlds album. Just as every one of us changes over time, so do artists. They’re human too. For many of them, their music reflects their own changes they are going through. Porter had a very noticeable change in his sound.

His song, Fellow Feeling, is a favorite of mine. If there was a way to represent good and evil as sounds, I think he captures both of them, and then captures what happens when they meet.

“I wanted it to be a very pretty thing that somehow… it turned into this very hateful, violent, ugly thing. […] I was really frustrated with heavy, heavy 128 BPM stuff and so I turned it into this ugly, evil, chugging techno monster that doesn’t have a really danceable meter to it and it glitches and moves in and out of quarter notes and it’s not in the right key and to me that song was meant to help people understand where my head was at with dance music.”—Porter Robinson, on Fellow Feeling

This message really spoke to me with my own life. I came into this world as an innocent child. I found success as a kid and teenager growing up, doing well in school and being well liked. This started to build up pride in myself and a self-made pressure to continue being a people pleaser. This led me down the road to trying alcohol like my friends were doing, which then eventually led me to getting drunk, which then led me to making bad decisions.

It came to a point where I would almost always get drunk when I went out into the city. I’d even rip some shots before leaving because I became uncomfortable socializing sober. I eventually got into drugs because I needed more of a thrill. It snowballed into lots of other problems and regrets I had in life. I carried it all around like baggage and it made me a stubborn, irritable person. Old friends didn’t recognize me. I had a lot of new friends, or at least people I thought were friends. Like me, they enjoyed partying and forgetting about life’s problems. We helped each other forget, and the alcohol and drugs added to the numbness.

What had I become? I started out as a little baby and had turned into something really ugly.

Music Resembles Life

To me, music is symbolic of our own struggle through life, our own moral battle trying to discern good and evil. In music theory, there’s a pervasive theme of contrast, between consonance and dissonance, between steady rhythm and syncopated rhythm, between major and minor chords, between notes in and out of the key, between sound and silence. A good song is often a tug-of-war between two extremes.

On one extreme, a song that’s completely harmonic and unchanging would be predictable, forgettable, and boring.

On the other extreme, a song that’s totally dissonant and has no regular rhythm would sound like a racket of noise.

In both extremes, the result of listeners is the same: they won’t play the song again. The challenge for a dynamic musical artist is to aim for something in the middle: writing a song that blends expectation with novelty.

Drawing the music-life analogy further, I see each of our lives as a song somewhere in the middle of the two extremes. We do good deeds but we also make mistakes. And like any earthly song, our earthly life must also come to an end eventually.

When a song ends, it almost always resolves itself. What does that mean?

Quick Music Theory Lesson

Every song has a key (usually one). A key is basically a group of notes that sound good together. Let’s look at the key of C. It’s made up of 7 notes:

C Key Notes

You don’t just play these seven notes one at a time, unless you harken back to when you played the recorder in elementary school.

You can combine these notes to make chords. A chord is at least two (though often at least three) notes that are played at the same time.

What three-note chords are in the key of C? They are based on the seven notes of the key.

C Key - Chords

So the C chord is when you play the C, E, and G notes at the same time.

For the key of C, you can think of C—and therefore the C chord—as “home base.” When you hear the C chord, it sounds like “returning home.” It’s familiar and sounds right.

Songs will often—though not always—start at home and end at home. So for a song in the key of C, that would mean the first chord is C and the last chord is C. Everything in the middle was a journey—going all over the place—but at the end, it concludes where it began. For some reason, that’s pleasing to our ears.

Life: Our Journey Home

I think that life is modeled in very much the same way that a song is. We started out “at home,” as children who were innocent and pure. We get to a point in our development where we start to understand that there’s a moral right and wrong. We have to start making moral decisions.

We are invited to make decisions that lead us home. We’re not forced to return home… we’re ultimately given the choice, and we reveal our choice based on the little decisions we make each and every day.

I’m now working to become more like the childlike self I was. Like a song ending the way it started, I want to return home… to a time when I did something because I knew in my heart it was the right thing to do. To a time when I didn’t succumb to peer pressure.

Heck, I had a phase as a kid where everyday I had to wear shorts that were the same color as my t-shirt. One day I was wearing all red, the next day I was wearing all purple. It was totally ridiculous but authentically me.

Regardless of what we wear, Jesus calls us to be childlike:

And they were bringing children to him, that he might touch them; and the disciples rebuked them. But when Jesus saw it he was indignant, and said to them, “Let the children come to me, do not hinder them; for to such belongs the kingdom of God. Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.” And he took them in his arms and blessed them, laying his hands upon them.—Mark 10:13-16, RSV-2CE

I want to rediscover those childlike qualities of purity, truth, and love. Having those qualities as an adult seems to be a rarity these days, but when you see someone like that, it’s inspirational and even just one person like that can change the world. Look at the saints.

Silence & Noise

In my days as a prodigal son, I always had to be listening to music or watching another random YouTube video, or talking to my friends about meaningless stuff or gossiping. Lots of noise basically.

I wouldn’t allow myself to just stop and think in silence. When I did let myself lie quietly, it started out feeling like silence. Then the whisper of my soul would break the silence, and I would brim over with thoughts. Heavy thoughts.

Why am I here? Am I on the right path? Why does my heart feel heavy? Why do I feel sad deep down? Where am I going? Listening to Jon Bellion’s song “Maybe IDK,” they were questions similar to his.

Here’s what the evil Screwtape says about silence and music, and how hell is a whole racket of noise.

Spiritual Advisory - Screwtape Content

“Music and silence—how I detest them both! How thankful we should be that ever since Our Father entered Hell— though longer ago than humans, reckoning in light years, could express— no square inch of infernal space and no moment of infernal time has been surrendered to either of those abominable forces, but all has been occupied by Noise.

Noise, the grand dynamism, the audible expression of all that is exultant, ruthless, and virile— Noise which alone defends us from silly qualms, despairing scruples and impossible desires. We will make the whole universe a noise in the end. We have already made great strides in this direction as regards the Earth. The melodies and silences of Heaven will be shouted down in the end. But I admit we are not yet loud enough, or anything like it. Research is in progress.”—Screwtape, The Screwtape Letters

Noise distracts us from what matters. I read the “research is in progress” bit as an interesting prediction by C.S. Lewis—author of The Screwtape Letters—that music would eventually be used as a way to distract us from what matters, or even worse, as encouragement for people to sin. Think of all the songs today that glorify lustful sex, drugs, alcohol, killing, or where the lyrics are badmouthing people. C.S. Lewis predicted the state of a lot of music today.

Overthrow or Overlook the Demons

Music can be used to help you uproot the demons in your heart, or it can distract you—like noise—so you forget about those demons.

I think Porter as an artist is really headed in a great direction of not making heavy, angry beats just for the sake of noise. It seems like he wants to make music that has a meaning. For example, when I listened to the clash in Fellow Feeling, it really helped me be aware of the clashing in my own heart.

“To me, Fellow Feeling stands for…I wanted people to kind of feel what I felt when it came to aggressive electronic beats and…where my head was at at that time, how that music was making me feel. But one of my fears with renouncing dance music was that people were going to take it as me also renouncing all of my old music and that’s not what I ever wanted. That music stood for something to me at the time and I wrote it for a reason. And to me the second half of the song is more of a reference to Language and Easy, earlier songs of mine that I still very much love and I wanted to show that I could write this big, loud melodic music at 128 BPM…that that was still who I was…that that fit with my new vision. But this idea of just writing heavy, aggressive beats for the sake of it was, you know, I feel like I was just expressing some violence towards that idea. I think the vocal makes it pretty literal.”—Porter Robinson, on Fellow Feeling

With a song, there’s both the artist’s intent and the listener’s intent. They may or may not necessarily align. The artist may be trying to send a particular message but it gets reinterpreted or ignored by the listener. Alternatively, the artist may not have been purposely trying to send a specific message, but to the listener it means something unique to them. Music videos definitely help convey the artist’s intent.

The hip-hop artist Lecrae gives a great TED talk on the origins of hip-hop and how it can be used as a vehicle for good or evil.

Your Song

Good and evil are constantly at war, and you have the free will to pick a side. Good allows evil to win some battles, but one thing is certain: good will win the war.

“This ugliness. This cruelty, This repulsiveness. It will all die out. And now, I cry for all that is beautiful.”—Porter Robinson. “Fellow Feeling.” Worlds. Astralwerks, 2014.

Each of our lives is like a song. A song can swell with melodic, harmonic, or lyrical tension just as our lives can swell with physical, emotional, or spiritual tension. Like Rascal Flatt’s song  “Why”, we are called not to give up on life and “leave the stage in the middle of a song.”

“I hear a mockingbird sing this old world really ain’t that bad of a place. […] Who told you life wasn’t worth the fight? They were wrong, they lied.” —Mathes, Rob & Shamblin, Allen. Performed by Rascal Flatts. “Why” Unstoppable. Lyric Street, 2009.

When the song of your life is done being written, will it be a beautiful song? It’s your choice. You’re in control to decide if you want to resolve your life the way it started: at home.