Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Music and God

Writing music has always been a strange process for me. People always ask me what it looks like; how does one get from point A to point B with a song? When I think about how to answer that question, I'm hit with the only word that seems suitable... Magic.

I don't say that to puff myself up in some pompous way, as if I'm a magician and you'll never know my secret. I also don't assume that you think there is anything 'magical' about the songs that I write. To be honest, they wear very quickly on me, and I am probably the most tireless critic of them. The truth is I've been writing songs for over a decade and I still have no idea how it works. I'm completely baffled by the process altogether. It can happen anywhere and at anytime. I can be doing anything and something will hit me: a phrase, a rhythmic rhyme, a melody, a guitar part, a drum beat, a topic. When it hits me, if I'm wise, I write it down, sing it into my phone or try to play it. I've learned that if I put it off, even for five minutes, the inspiration will have passed and I'll have forgotten it. As I sit here I can recall countless occasions of losing songs altogether. Sometimes it happens like this: While lying awake in my bed I write an entire song in my head, but being too lazy to lean over and type it into my phone or hum it into the speaker, I drift off to sleep. Convinced the idea is sheer genius and that there is no doubt I will remember it, I resolve to work it out first thing in the morning. In the morning I always awake a blank slate, completely oblivious that any inspiration happened the night prior (I've also lost some great comedy routines this way). Sometimes I'll go about my day, then midway through remember that I had an idea and kick myself for not working it out then and there. At that point it's completely gone and I'll never get it back. So in this way I think that music for the most part, at least in the beginning stages, is not really from me in the well-thought-out-planned sort of way. And if it is from me, it's from a part of me I'm not too familiar with and don't connect with very often. The only thing I really know about song writing is that I love it.

Recently I've learned to respect the inspiration more. This, however, has caused me some social problems. The other day, while I was playing my guitar on the couch, I was hit with a clever lead part (or what I assumed was a clever lead part, in some circles it's probably cliche). I went to my room hoping to record it for some future endeavor. As I sat down at my computer to do so, the entire song flooded my brain. It's an odd thing when this happens. I can hear every instrument in my head working together, and the entire structure of the song is born. At that point I'm forced to either follow it and work it out, or to lose it forever. I quickly started to sort out the rush of ideas, identifying the lead part as the pre-chorus and writing the verse to precede it. I was working on the chorus when Kristie walked in to ask me a few questions about our plans for later on that night. Saturday night probably isn't the best time to write songs, but as I mentioned before I am not in total control of when they choose to happen. I looked up at her with a blank stare, headphones on, lyrics and melodies swirling around in my mind, none of them written down. I had the choice to try to explain myself and lose those thoughts, or be blunt and keep working. "I'm busy, I don't know," I said, and as soon as I said it I realized that I wasn't going to be able to keep working. It was clear she wasn't too happy with that answer, so I proceeded to explain myself. It took a few minutes. At that point, I'd lost most of the more short-term thoughts. Kristie eventually went off to the store to grab something, and I was forced to start over. The good news is I got back on track and finished the song, the bad news is I was a jerk, and in the process of being one I might have lost some good ideas.

It can be easy for me to take full credit for the songs that I write. If somebody loves a song, it makes me feel good, like I've done something fantastic for that person. I especially like it when other musicians appreciate songs that I write, because it makes me feel like an esteemed colleague, one who is respected in my field and among my peers. I know it sounds like I'm being a bit facetious, but I think we all desperately want to be noticed as something special. The thing that keeps me humble is the fear that the songs might stop coming. I truthfully don't know where they come from, and sometimes they can vacate my mind for months on end. It sounds a bit ridiculous, but I worry that someday if I keep taking credit for them, the true source might choose to cut me off entirely. I am a firm believer in God, and I do think that He has blessed me with certain talents in order to serve others... I think this has something to do with where these songs come from, and it plays directly into the relationship between music and God. I don't want this to sound arrogant, like God has ordained me with these glorious talents of song and I have from hence been sent-forth as a missionary to bless the world sonically. That's not really what I think. I think that I've been given a set of tools, and I'm supposed to use those tools for good. Not to elevate myself or to take all the credit I 'deserve,' but to share my gifts with others. Plus deep down I know I'm really not as talented a musician as I should be, and if these songs stop coming I'm screwed.

Music and God are a lot alike to me. For both I spend a lot of time waiting, listening, hoping to be moved in some way. Both are very mysterious. God, very much like music, tends to pop up whenever He wants to share something profound, and then He leaves the second He loses my attention. I know He doesn't really leave, but you know what I mean. Music can speak to your soul and can evoke any emotion, just like God. Music strikes a chord sometimes, and then other times for whatever reason it doesn't. Sometimes, in a very God-like fashion, Music can change your perspective, and even your life. But eventually the goosebumps wear off. When the inspiration leaves, I am left to fill in the blanks. Just like a song; I hear the verse, respond with the chorus, then write the bridge. When God's inspiration leaves, I think it's human nature to put in place boundaries and rules in an attempt to remember Him. Just like when Bono says, "Religion to me is almost like when God leaves - and people devise a set of rules to fill the space." It's really just a response to the inspiration, to the interaction with God. Unfortunately, it can end up so opposite of what God wanted that it sounds blasphemous to say He inspired it in the first place. Religion is the bridge, sometimes it can let the song down, and sometimes it can give it a lift. A good bridge is always the best part of any song, because it takes what you've heard in the verse and chorus, and adorns it with deeper meaning. It takes it to the next level.

Mother Theresa wrote a very good 'bridge.' Out of conviction and faith she chose to act. She chose to spend a lifetime tending to the needs of the poor, sick and dying in the streets of Kolkata. Because of that, onlookers valued her faith and her God. Because of her well written 'bridge,' her verse and chorus were emblazoned with incredible meaning and value. Her Inspiration, her God, received the credit. She often said, "I am a little pencil in the hand of a writing God who is sending a love letter to the world." Her love letter, her 'bridge,' will never be forgotten.

One thing we learn from reading the Old Testament is that God likes songs. In Psalm 40:3, King David writes, "He (the Lord) put a new song in my mouth, a song of praise to our God." David is saying that God gave him a song. In fact, the idea that God gives songs to people is widely stated throughout the Bible, and its usually referring to a song of praise. Much of the Psalms are songs of praise or lament. Some are angry, some are joyous. All of them are to God. For some reason, the early authors thought that a song was a good way to communicate with God. For thousands of years the Psalms have been a pleasure to read, rich with poetry and metaphors in great song-like fashion. In the 17th and 18th century, hymn-writers like Isaac Watts, John Newton, and Charles Wesley turned Psalms into hymns. John Newton, of course, is remembered for writing his famous original Psalm entitled "Amazing Grace." So the tradition is there, and for years and years songs have been written for God with the belief that they were God-inspired. In fact, there are hundreds of verses indicating vocal and instrumental music in the Bible. Many references are even non-religious and were for merriment or bereavement (weddings, feasts, funerals, etc.) Back in Bible times they loved their music, and they knew how to party, but thats for another post.

So the relationship between God and music is not a new thing. People thought about this long before my Scottish and English ancestors were alive. Apparently music, even to the ancients who lacked refined instruments or PA systems, was quite a spiritual thing. With songs, I used to think you just sat down with an idea and worked it out. If you were good, you'd end up with a good song, but the more songs I write, the more I realize that the process is intricate and tough to replicate. It's hard to explain. Like faith, it sometimes lacks any practical explanation. I can tell you the characteristics of a good song, I can point you in the direction of some good songs, but I have no idea how to make them come about. I suppose it's quite similar to my faith in God. I know what He looks like when lived out through people, I know what He feels like, but I can't recreate Him. Martin Luther once said, "We are all mere beggars telling other beggars where to find the bread.” I can point people to the bread, but I can't make the bread happen. I think sometimes it's the same with music, I feel like a beggar just waiting for my next meal.


  1. Hey Matt, I'm glad it seems you've found a calling in music. I know when I first listened to some of the songs on TSC last year I was pretty much 'crap how does this guy know the story of my life'. By 'some' of the songs I mean everything but 'Everything' ;) although even that was relatable in a satirical sense. Keep using that gift of yours, I doubt the next meal is very far away.
    Oh and I'm glad it's not just me who finds inspiration in fleeting thoughts that seem to blink out of memory almost instantly. If even half those forgotten lines had been penned down...

  2. Amen to everything Smuddleglum said. You have a God-given gift Matt, and I am so glad you use it to give to others. I hope you consider giving glory to the Giver as well.. (im sure you do) You've blessed my life, and may yours be blessed too.

  3. its so weird to how we relate to some of these same things. i have read every blog on here and you were already somebody that i looked up too and now it makes it even more true. the gift that god has blessed you with is a tool that many do not have. and for most, it can not be learned. i recently took up snowboarding and sometimes it really sucks because i will get my ideas while i am up on a hill. everytime i am up on that mountain i am looking down at all of those beautiful trees and the great landscape while smelling that fresh northwest air (yes i know that was basically from a simple seed) when i am up there i find myself in a time of a lot of prayer. a lot of hope. i find myself doing a lot of thinking about things such as what am i doing with my life? what can i improve? and i usually ask myself how good is my relationship with god? as great as i think it might sometimes be, he might not think the same. i know i am not a model christian but i sure try. it is different to not have believing parents or anything. but matt, i hope to play a show with you someday, that would be amazing. you are a great person with a very talented gift.

    i will see you march 21st.

    p.s. can you play far from home PLEASE??
    p.p.s. can you guys play a simple seed again like you did at pierce? that would be amazing. ya i am one of the three that skip said we were crazy awesome. we sang and screamed to everything. especially when robbie is holdin that F i believe it is if i remember right and then he fingerpicks out the solo in medisin. that is just a beautiful moment. i dont know why i said that like you dont know that already.

    god bless.

  4. wow... as josh said... "its so weird to how we relate to some of these same things. i have read every blog on here and you were already somebody that i looked up too and now it makes it even more true." lol sure, maybe i'm 10 years younger than you, and maybe i've only been writing real music for like, 2 years, and only have like 10 decent songs, but no one i've ever known really seems to get all these ideas...

    people've asked me how i write songs before too... but you're right it IS magic, something happens and then somehow, it just starts playing in your head... "the entire song flooded my brain. It's an odd thing when this happens. I can hear every instrument in my head working together, and the entire structure of the song is born." like that. sometimes you just can't get it all out fast enough, or don't have the ability to record what's playing in your head (i only play the guitar and piano, and violin)... and then other times it's just one part: a piece of lyrics, a drum beat, a title, a bassline, some weird effect...

    and i can remember being in like 5th or 6th grade when all i wrote were 60 second pieces i called "minuets" haha, dozens of times i'd go to bed thinking oh, of course i'll remember it when i wake up tomorrow, it's so simple. and then i'd wake up and it'd be gone and i'd be so mad that i didn't write it down earlier. i only have 4 of those left now... but i've also been in the place where i'm trying to figure out some new song and then get interrupted; my mom'll come in and tell me to do my homework, or that i have to go to dinner... and i'll "be a jerk, and in the process of being one, loose some good ideas", snap at her for interrupting me, only to regret it later...

    and about communicating with god through the music- it might sound kind of weird but that's how god speaks to me most, through music. either what i'm listening or what i'm playing. times come when i can't express myself to him through words anymore i'll bang my complaints into the piano, and he'll answer me through them... and then like you said all of a sudden he'll be gone...

    regarding what you said about taking credit for songs that people like, that touch people, too... it almost feels like an undeserved compliment sometimes because it... wasn't your fault, it just came. yet it feels so good to just take that compliment, "to be noticed as something special", to get completely blinded by my own pride... and "deep down I know I'm really not as talented a musician as I should be, and if these songs stop coming I'm screwed."

    well i appologize for how huge this comment is, but... though i love all of your blogs, this one in particular got me very excited haha :D i doubt i count as a peer or a colleague but matt, just so you know, you've earned my deepest respect...

    i will definetly be there on the 21st. :)


  5. wow this is the first time i've read this bff sent me the link (she commented before me). i'm sort of hopeless when it comes to writing music, or even singing in tune, but i can totally relate to God speaking through music. i love how you pointed out that music has been such a major way of communication throughout the bible, because i've had some people tell me that the only way of communicating with God is through prayer. but i know thats totally not true. you know that feeling of God being in a song, or more like in the music? you can't deny that God is speaking to you.

    well, since its my first comment, thank you so much for you music. no, i definitely do NOT count as a colleague, since i play viola, not guitar or piano or drums or anything in that sense, but you have also earned my deepest respect with your music. i'll try my hardest to be there on the 21st (and go to my first tcc concert!) : )


  6. Scottish people are the best!

    (Coming from another person that is mostly Scottish)

  7. I know this comment is over a year after you posted this, but I just recently found your blog and have been blessed by it.

    I would just like to say, as a writer (I write poetry), I know exactly the feeling. It is even to the point that sometimes the closer I am in relationship with God the more inspiration I have for poetry, which are mostly about nature, that He created. It's all just kinda cool how it works.

    Right now I'm in a dry spell and just feel particularly uninspired. Sometimes I wonder if I will ever write a good poem again.

    I guess I will just have to resort to prose journaling, blogging, and commenting on year-old blog posts.

    God bless!