Bobby McFerrin, the Pentatonic Scale, Aesthetic Objectivism, and Worship Wars

Zac HicksCulture, Worship Theology & Thought1 Comment

My friend Erick pointed me to this interesting video of Bobby McFerrin at a science forum:

Bobby McFerrin Pentatonic Scale from houbero on Vimeo.

I have not peered into the discussion that follows McFerrin’s presentation, but my hunch, based on the closing comments, is that they would explore the implications of the fact that, cross-culturally, the pentatonic scale is universally recognized and apprehended.  This is a fascinating observation, which flies in the face of postmodern cultural relativism.  I don’t think it’s a slam dunk argument, but it certainly is a piece of the puzzle for the cumulative case for aesthetic objectivism (that we truly CAN identify things across cultures which are beautiful…that beauty is objective, not subjective).

Of course, as a monotheist, I am inclined to believe in aesthetic objectivism.  There is one God, Creator of all things, and just as moral objectivism (the belief that there are universal moral standards which transcend all cultures) flows from the person and nature of this one true God, so does beauty. 

To my ear, the pentatonic scale is both orderly and beautiful.  Lead guitarists with any sense of music know that the root for all lead lines is the pentatonic scale.  But one can also hear the pentatonic scale in non-American, non-rock-n-roll, Eastern music (the indigenous music of China and India come to mind).  And whether I hear that scale articulated and embellished in a Guns n Roses solo or in Balinese Gamelan music, something sounds sweet and right about it. 

Where does this intersect with my field…Christian worship?  Being the leader in a church with two different “worship styles”–modern folk/indie/pop rock and traditional/classical–and being someone who longs to build bridges between the two because of my commitment to the merits of both, I see an irony in the fact that Western music (and perhaps Eastern music, as I have observed) is built off of some of the same building blocks of beauty, embedded in our souls by our common Creator, Yahweh.  The irony appears when people get so fixated on one vein of Western music (whether it be “high” Classical music or “low” pop music) that they begin to pit one genre against another as “more beautiful.”  This is often the crux of the divide between traditional and modern worship.  I wonder if people realize how much we have in common with our “aesthetic tastes.”  I wonder if we understand that the beauty some find in Bach’s “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” is the same beauty that others hear in Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven.”  Could it be that our criteria for beauty and cross-cultural understanding are stamped on us and in us by a common Author?  

If this is true, can traditionalists and contemporary-ists attempt to step off the extreme edges of our polarization?  I’ve argued before that, from a moral, missiological, and ecclesiological perspective, we should be willing to come together for the sake of unity, mission, and the injunction to bear one another’s burdens as the body of Christ.  But perhaps there’s an additional injunction that appears out of aesthetic objectivism that encourages the same kind of coming together.

One Comment on “Bobby McFerrin, the Pentatonic Scale, Aesthetic Objectivism, and Worship Wars”

  1. You’re quite welcome! I had no idea you’d be able to extrapolate such a blog post out of that clip but I’m diggin’ it.

    And for your next post, the musical modalities and their correlation to the fruits of the spirit. ; )

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