June 6, 2020

Harold Best on Sound and Silence

Harold M. Best is emeritus professor of music and dean emeritus of the Wheaton College Conservatory of Music in Wheaton, Illinois. He is past president of the National Association of Schools of Music. Best has a reputation as one of evangelical Christianity’s foremost authorities on church music. His 1993 book, Music Through the Eyes of Faith, is a classic study of the connections between music-making and Christian faith.

There is a great deal we could mine from this treasury of insight, but I want to focus your attention on one passage from his chapter, “Music and the Worshiping Church.” This excerpt got my attention because it speaks to a broader cultural issue that many of us don’t think about enough, in my opinion. This issue makes our perspective on music, as people of the 20th and 21st centuries, different than that of any previous generation of human beings.

We’re talking about the ubiquity of music in our lives.

Here’s what Harold Best has to say in the light of the music-saturated world in which we live and move and have our being:

There is such a thing as too much music, even when all the music is good music, in the same sense that there is such a thing as too much food even when all of it is nutritious. Musical gluttony is not uncommon either in general culture or in Christian music making. In fact, it is virtually beyond argument that music is so nearly omnipresent in our lives that it has become absent, not in the acoustical sense, but in the sense of having true significance. If we were to keep a tally of all the times we hear music during the day — in stores, at work, in our automobiles, on television, radio, and stereo sets, day in and day out — the total would be overwhelming. Then, if we were to do a set of comparisons:

  • (1) between the amount of music that reaches our ears and the amount of music we consciously perceive;
  • (2) between the amount of music that serves as background and the amount that functions in direct connection with another activity — for there is a distinct difference;
  • and (3) between the amount of music heard or listened to in all of the above circumstances and the amount we actually sit down and listen to just for the challenge and joy of perceiving music for what it inherently is,

we would probably discover that the first situation in each comparison would win out. In other words, despite the overwhelming presence of music in our lives, very little of it has any direct significance.

This has carried over into our perception and use of music in worship. We would be better off if we forced ourselves into musical silence in order to discover two things:

  • (1) that it is quite possible to worship God without music; God will still keep company with us in our silence;
  • and (2) that music making is at its best, not when we engorge ourselves with it, but when, as lean and spare worshipers — temperate and spiritually fit in all things — we make music in exactly the right amount.
(emphasis mine)

Remember, Harold Best wrote this before the iPod and the even more constant soundtrack by which we live today, blasting at us from all corners of our world.

Silence. What a concept.

As much as I love music, right now that sounds like music to my ears.


  1. br. thomas says

    “Silence is God’s first language” – St.John of the Cross. Not just through the absence of sound, but also in the stillness & solitude of one’s heart.

    • When I spent a week at Gethsemani last year I had what I learned later is a common experience. It took at least two days to quiet the noise within me before I could even begin to listen. Most of us have little self- awareness when it comes to how cacophonous our inner worlds are. And yet we keep bombarding our lives with more and more sound.

  2. I agree with Best absolutely! His comparison of musical excess to gluttony is a thought-provoking one.

    • If we all went on a musical “diet,” or even if we found ourselves musically “starving,” what would we listen to when we had the rare chance? I can only imagine it would be infinitely more classy, substantive, and fulfilling than the mainstream diet of disposable pop. Perhaps it is to much art that undermines the fine arts.

  3. Yes, if God speaks in the silence & stillness of our hearts, what room do we make to hear God’s voice if our pre-worship is filled with conversation, if our worship is filled with music & spoken word without pauses, if prayer is defined by what we say, not by what we listen for? If God speaks in silence & stillness, then we must be intentional to create the space to hear His voice because noise & activity pollution is all around us. Amen to Harold Best’s insights & thanks for bringing them to light, Chap. Mike.

  4. Background music has driven me out of stores; after awhile it just gets annoying. It’s simply NOISE.

    As for movies … I wish someone would start making movies without soundtracks. When I run, walk, chase after someone, etc., there isn’t this sudden swell of instruments or drumbeats accompanying my every action. I doubt when our soldiers go into battle that there is a full-blown orchestra playing along and loud enough to drown out the bullets and the screams. I think Boris Karloff said that he hated music added to movies, that it was “silly.”

    Give me “The Sound of Silence.”

  5. Going off-topic, but related somewhat to my thing about images – a link to Thomas McDonald’s blog, and a story about a wall-painting from Pompeii which seems to show the Judgement of Solomon and dates to sometime just before 79 AD (when Vesuvius erupted).

    So whoever commissioned this – Jew, Christian, educated and sympathetic Gentile – images of Biblical scenes and characters were being shown in private houses. Now, this is more of the nature of religious art rather than devotional images per se, but it does demonstrate that the First Commandment was being interpreted liberally.

  6. David Cornwell says

    Silence is one of the reasons wilderness becomes so welcoming. However I’ve seen times when sitting on a log and listening to an orchestra would be very nice and maybe fitting.

    • Yes, David, I agree. And I sometimes hear those strains in my mind when in such settings. I just don’t want someone piping in background music to interpret it for me.

  7. David Cornwell says

    Living in a rural area, somewhat isolated, we don’t hear as unwanted sound as we did in town. But sometimes a teenager drives by and we can hear music blasting in his car for at least a half mile before he drives by. It always makes us laugh.

    • David Cornwell says

      Should be “as much unwanted”…

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      Here in SoCal, we call them “Thump-Trucks”. And Thump-Trucks play only two types of music:
      1) GANGSTA Rap.
      2) Mexican Pop.
      Both cranked up to 11 and routed through Bass Cannons, to the point they literally vibrate every window — car or house — for a block around.

  8. I often wonder what daily life was like when music was ONLY live (the rare musician or listening to oneself) and books were a rare and precious commodity, only for the wealthy and educated.

    I would miss music, but the thought of life without books and reading is too sad to contemplate!

  9. I usually try to leave at least one space of intentional silence in every worship service. If the service is all strung together musically with a sequence and transition between everything, any accidental silence is going to come off seeming awkward. But if the silence is intentional and planned, it can be used to emphasize certain aspects of the worship service in a manner similar to an emotional or ascetic high point.

    I was just thinking about this the other day. As much as I enjoy my profession, at some utilitarian point, it is somewhat superfluous. Not that I don’t think the church should invest in music and strive for the best application of it in worship possible. It’s just that it is not absolutely necessary to the mission of the church. They weren’t that worried about choir directors in the first century. They were concerned about ecclesial leadership: The pastors are necessary, the musicians are the cherry on top. If it had to, the church could survive without them, even though we thank God that it has practically never had to.

    The thing is, though, go to an average evangelical church and nix the music. What are you left with? A sermon. Maybe a few brief prayers and announcements. Now go to a liturgical church and nix the music. What are you left with? A worship service that is still intact. The music adorns the service, but it is not the substance of it. If we can keep that in mind when planning worship, it can be easier to find places where less sound is more.

    • Thank you. +1

    • Wenatchee The Hatchet says

      I admit to being musically picky but I wouldn’t want there to be NO music in a service. Even super-hardcore people on the regulative principle would still let singing happen, right? 🙂

      Not everyone listens to music in the same way. There’s such things as active and passive listening. It’s possible to actively sing something while being a passive listener. Some people listen to music to adjust their mood, others listen to complement their mood or reflect their mood. Others listen to music with attention to formal development of musical ideas (I do this a lot and I notice I often don’t find that habit in people who don’t also write music of their own). While I would agree music is often everywhere Paul Hindemith was complaining about how common music was in American culture sixty years ago. Apparently he wasn’t used to coming across omnipresent music back while he was still in Germany before WW2 (no surprise).

  10. One Hit Wonder says

    Music and worship are mentioned together throughout the Bible…music was a huge part of Jewish life, Temple worship, festivals etc. This discussion on music has been both inconsistant and contradictory by the imonk regulars. Dont I see secular video recommendations evry Saturday, the main writers of this site routinely talk of their favorite secular artist…then go on to bash evangelical worship and the artist that create the worship music being sung by todays church. Come on imonkers,get off your high horse, stop looking down our nose at the rest of us who dont attend your mass or your high church, litergically correct worship services…your not “doing it” better than everyone else, your not closer to God because your way of worship is quieter or you light candles….I have been a long time reader but this is my first time commenting….as way of a introduction, I am a pastor, I have served overseas as a church planter..I have worshipped in grass huts, out in open fields, huge cathederals, high church, low church, in the worlds greatest cities and in nameless moutain villages…and the focus has always been the same…worshipping Jesus, with His people, in different languages, different styles….dont be so quick to condem something because it may not suit your taste….love the imonk community but sometimes you take yourselves a little to serious…just sayin

    • I get your rant. I fail to see what it has to do with the subject of the post.

      • One Hit Wonder says

        lol…thats what i get for jumpin into the conversation after my normal bedtime….I do appriciate all of the Imonk community…thanks for “getting my rant” ….a little ranting is good for the soul 🙂 …good night Chaplain Mike..God Bless

  11. Isn’t this the point the Psalmist makes with “selah”? I always understood selah to be an instruction to the choir-master to pause the singing, so the assembly to contemplate the depth of the content. In other words, a pregnant silence.

    • Wenatchee The Hatchet says

      Ichabod, I’ve seen that interpretation. I’ve also seen the interpretationi that it might indicate an instrumental interlude. Of course any American guitarist in a church setting might interpret that as “insert guitar solo here”. 😉