In Search of the Lost Chord: Beauty In Music

I seem to be on a lifelong quest to find the Most Beautiful Song.

Not that I’m even sure how to describe it right now, of course—other than that, when I find it, it would be the sort that I might listen to ten million times without tiring of a single note or chord. And it’s certainly not that I haven’t heard beautiful music before. There are songs and compositions I have been listening to for many years now that are still as fresh and powerful as when their melodies first pulsed through my wide-eyed heart. But even these I play in intervals, giving them a few months’ rest here and there. They do not experience continuous repetition.

Over time, I have loosely identified two basic categories of enjoyable music: that which makes memories, and that which soothes or stirs the listener with striking poignance. Both, of course, frequently overlap. In fact, both of these working together raise the very question of what makes music beautiful. Can a deep, heartfelt sense of longing and joy felt in a piece of music exist without past experience? Does the poignant power of music arise from appreciation of its technicality, the power of nostalgic sentiments, or the imagination of things that might one day come to pass?

For the first category: A host of songs exist that have served as soundtracks for different times in my life. Some of these represent chapters and seasons; some bring back days, events, and specific memories. They’re the type that are enormously fun to belt out at the top of one’s lungs when chilling with old comrades. Many of these I would never consider “beautiful”, but if the nostalgia is especially strong, or if the music has a good catch to it, I might listen to it several times in a row till I get my fix. You get the idea; everyone has at least one song that carries connotation of the past or captivates their fascination with that one guitar setting, the sound of that snare drum, the timber of the vocalist’s voice.

For the second category: There are songs and compositions that are so richly written that it is a crime to simply crank them up as background music. Much of classical music falls into this category; so do any stirring, poetic songs or pieces of music that demonstrate technical and creative ingenuity. If I am at work hammering out a paper, I cannot passively listen to Rachmaninoff’s “Ты помнишь ли вечер” as it drifts through my earphones. We have Top 40 radio for that purpose. We have things like Russian harmonics for active listening.

So, what is the Most Beautiful Song? I regret that I cannot nail down one particular track for you, though on many occasions certain songs have captured my attention which I believed to be my favorite song of all time. I can possibly name my top three favorite songs and compositions for any given artist or composer, but I must rest the case if called to select one representative of all sonic history. Rather, if you want to really strike my ear, consider these characteristics:

  • Creativity. Don’t give me just three basic chords, give me a unique variety. Or if you want to keep things simple (and multi-chord songs can definitely be overdone), stick with the three chords and give me a melodic riff I’ll never forget.
  • Depth. Give me something I’ll keep chewing on. Give me a lyric that poetically expresses an observation, story, or truth. The song needs to engage me just as much as I engage it. Every other pop song starts off with some variation of the word “tonight” and from there you know exactly what the rest of the song is about. Don’t give me shallow cliche and shortsighted sensual exaltation, give me depth. I want at least one line over which I can scratch my head. Artists like Derek Webb, Josh Garrels, and Dan Haseltine (to name only a few) do an excellent job of writing songs with enigmatic clarity, and as a result I spend months chewing on their songs as they play on repeat in my car.
  • Arrangement. Many are the songs that are eloquently written and creatively crafted, but possess an arrangement either unfitting to the mood or undeveloped to the full extent of the lyrical requirement. This is a pretty subjective factor; different songs hit people’s ears differently. But there’s something to be said about the proper mood. Don’t give me something upbeat and almost whimsical if you’re singing about God’s sovereignty as your anchor amid the confusing darkness of life’s uncertainty (I have a song in mind that does exactly this, and it’s wretched).

I will never find the Most Beautiful Song this side of Heaven, of course. I suppose that’s part of the eternal longing within each of us. We want to be filled with delight over something that will never grow old. But while I sojourn on this earth, I want to take the gift of music God has given unto man and craft it into audible art that pierces the soul, portrays the world in all its beauty and brokenness, and points to His redemption of the universe.

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