Kevin Simington

In “Truth and Beauty, Part I”, I examined the descent into chaos and ugliness in art and architecture, resulting from the post-modern rejection of the absolute truth. When the precise mathematical ratios of balance, perspective and symmetry, occurring ubiquitously within nature, are spurned, the result is ugliness.

Music exhibits exactly the same relationship between truth and beauty. It follows precise mathematical rules and relationships. All music is based upon a twelve-note octave and an eight-note major scale, with seven modes per scale. (Eastern music includes quarter tones that are simply smaller increments of these scales). There are many complex mathematical conventions governing the relationship between keys, scales and chords. When these are adhered to there is beauty and harmony. When they are ignored (accidentally or deliberately) the result is dissonance and discord. Music also contains symmetry. Most western songs are based on a 4-bar pattern – with some form of resolution occurring every 4 bars. Multiples of 4 bars are used to construct songs. The most common form in contemporary songs is an eight-bar verse and an eight-bar chorus, with an eight bar “middle eight” often thrown in between. Occasional variations, such as a one or two bar turn-around or a two-beat bar to link the next section, are sometimes added to create interest and to grab our attention, but, generally speaking, the predictably even form and mathematical symmetry of the bars of a song is what sounds most pleasing to the ear.

Music that disregards these precise mathematical rules, particularly regarding scales, keys and chords, sounds harsh and ugly to the ears. As is the case with art, disregard of these musical conventions may sometimes be deliberate, in order to achieve a specific purpose. Such disregard produces music that is confronting, jarring and disturbing, and can effectively portray strong negative emotions, but one cannot, in all truth, describe it as beautiful. Wikipedia defines avant-garde music as “implying a critique of existing aesthetic conventions, rejection of the status quo … with the idea of deliberately challenging or alienating audiences”. The plethora of sub-genres of new, progressive, alternative, avant-garde music all have one thing in common – a rejection of many of the basic mathematical conventions of music, resulting in a harsh, aggressive, dissonant sound. It is not beautiful; it isn’t meant to be.

This rejection of the traditional mathematical conventions of music is what makes it so appealing to young people, and is indicative of their post-modern rejection of absolutes. Avant-garde music is a form of rebellion against the norms of society, and an expression of emotions such as anger, disillusionment, confusion and sadness as young people (and some not so young) seek to find their place in the world.

I am a guitarist who has played semi-professionally for nearly 40 years, enjoying a variety of genres – blues, funk, soul, pop and jazz. Several years ago, I attended a classical performance by the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. I had never been to a live classical performance before. I was “out of my comfort zone”. But as the orchestra played, I was swept up in an emotional experience that was totally unexpected. At first, I was simply captivated by the complexities of the music; theme and counter theme, melody and counter melody, the harmonic interplay of the instruments, and the ingenious twists and variations of the movements within each composition. But very quickly I found myself moving from an intellectual analysis of the music to a deeply emotional response. I was profoundly moved by the sheer beauty of the music. Tears began streaming down my face as my senses were overwhelmed by the majesty of what I was hearing. The music swelled and soared and carried me to a spiritual and emotional state where I was so overwhelmed by the beauty of the music that all I could do was cry. I had never experienced such rapturous beauty before. As I looked around at others in the audience, there were many with similarly moist eyes.

Objective beauty does exist, the experience of which is rendered even more poignant when it is encountered unexpectedly. Music was created by God to be beautiful. And He created the parameters, the precise relationships and laws by which it can be beautiful. When music is composed and played in accordance with those conventions and laws it has the potential to reach a level of beauty that is profoundly spiritual.  As much as I enjoy playing blues and funk, it has never moved me to tears. Classical music, with its extraordinary complexity and its multi-layer instrumentation, making possible incredibly rich and intricate melodies, counter-melodies, harmonies, dynamics and phrasing, has the potential to create and express the most exquisite beauty.

As in art, beauty in music is based upon truth – conformity to precisely formulated mathematical rules and relationships. In fact, objective, quantifiable truth lies at the heart of all that is good, noble and beautiful. Moral values, for example, can only be considered truly, unequivocally “good”, if they are based upon more than vague subjective opinions and popularity. History is replete with extremely evil moral policies that were overwhelmingly popular at the time (the Nazi genocide of Jews being one of many examples). Morality that is truly good and pure and beautiful, in the absolute sense, is only possible if there exists an external set of morals, based upon absolute truth, against which our subjective opinions can be evaluated.

Christianity teaches that the Creator God has set in place such a set of absolute standards – not only regarding morality, but in all spheres of life. The precisely formulated mathematical relationships that exist between balance, perspective, symmetry and form in art, together with the complex, precise relationship between keys, scales and chords in music are not mere subjective conventions determined by popular vote; they exist absolutely. For example, the precise ratio by which an object’s apparent size appears to diminish with distance (called “perspective” in art) exists as an absolute mathematical ratio and does not vary. It is built into the very nature of creation itself, placed there by the God who made it. Similarly, in music, the fact that two notes from the same scale, when played simultaneously, sound harmonic, while notes from different scales sound unpleasant and dissonant is not the result of a national poll or plebiscite where we were all asked, “Who likes this sound?”. Harmony and dissonance exist in an absolute sense; the result of the precise mathematical frequencies of each note and their complex interplay.

A society that rejects the existence of absolute truth will inevitably produce art that is ugly, architecture that is ugly, music that is ugly and morality that is ugly. Because truth and beauty are irrevocably linked.