How to respond to musical ineptitude

Tom Chevis 14 Mar 17

At church a few Sundays back, I had the very curious and unprecedented experience of being heartily encouraged by somebody singing dreadfully out of tune! “What?” I hear you cry, “have you gone mad?” As a trained singer, such an occurrence should, according to the normal rules of musical snobbery, have made me cringe, if not actually bristle with indignation. And yet I found myself encouraged. Why?

The simple answer is that it was done with such raw, unaffected passion. Here was a man, presumably part of the five per cent of those who are actually tone deaf*, who was hollering his heart out to Christ, completely unbothered by the fact that musically it sounded awful! And I found myself encouraged.

And as I reflected on this curious experience, it struck me that when we, as trained musicians, are faced with musical ineptitude in non-musicians, we are always faced with a choice:

  • Will we respond by loving our neighbour (and so obeying Christ), or by scorning/mocking/judging our neighbour (thereby disobeying Christ)?
  • Will we react according to the sinful nature, or according to the new Spirit-indwelt self?
  • Will we choose the path of godliness, or the path of wickedness?

Let’s just apply the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23) to this situation for a moment:

  • Will we have love for our brother or sister? Or will we have love only for ourselves and our musical talent?
  • Will we have joy in our brother or sister’s joy (“rejoicing with those who rejoice” Romans 12:15) and in their unaffected praise of Christ? Or will we have joy in our own musical superiority?
  • Will we have inner peace despite their discordance – being content in Christ whatever the circumstances (even horrendously out-of-tune singing!) – and external peace with them, not letting their lack of ability affect our fellowship with them? Or will we let our musical snobbery drive away our peace?
  • Will we have patience with them, knowing that their gift is different from ours, and that they would likely have to have much patience with us in some other area of life in which they might be greatly gifted? Or will we lose patience with them?
  • Will we show kindness and goodness to them, even though they may have irritated us? Or will we ignore them afterwards?
  • Will we have self-control and gentleness in our speech as we speak to them or about them? Or will we be unnecessarily harsh, insensitive or even just plain rude?
  • Will we have the faithfulness to Christ to obey Him in all these matters of godliness? **

In short, we are to remember that what we have, by way of musical talent, is but a gift from God, and not of our own doing. And therefore we have no grounds whatsoever for standing in any position of judgment or superiority over our fellow brothers or sisters. And let us heed these extremely challenging words: With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be. (James 3:9-10)

“Ah,” I hear, “but we are meant to do everything to God’s glory which surely means to do everything to the best of our ability, so wouldn’t it in fact be a kindness to them, even an act of love, to take them aside and instruct them, perhaps give them a little tuition in singing?”

Well, there are a few points to note here:

  • Yes, we are meant to do everything to God’s glory, and as such to the best of our ability. But:
    • It is perfectly possible that the inharmoniousness emitting from their mouths is the height of their vocal ability!
    • The Lord sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart. (1 Samuel 16:7). Wonderfully harmonious and tuneful singing means far less to the Lord than passionate out-of-tune singing if the former has not a heart of praise and devotion to Christ. As Jesus warned the Pharisees: Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites; as it is written: ‘“These people honour me with their lips,but their hearts are far from me.”’ (Mark 7:6).
  • Offering musical instruction might be an act of kindness, but it rather depends on the motive:
    • Are we offering it because we hope it’ll reduce the discordance and so eradicate a source of irritation for us?
    • Or are we offering it genuinely out of a desire to build them up?
  • Are you the right person to offer such instruction? You might be the most musically gifted, but such an offer inevitably implies your criticism of their current ability (or lack thereof). Such a criticism comes best in the context of real friendship, where there is a bedrock of trust.

  • Do they want the instruction? What if they’re totally unaware of their lack of ability? Well, until a close friend is able to point it out to them, I think we’d do much better simply to cultivate the fruits of the Spirit towards them, as discussed above: being patient with them, showing kindness to them, exercising self-control over our tongues towards them. Why ruin their joy (and in all likelihood increase insecurity in them) by insisting on their improvement of a gift with which they’ve not been blessed particularly abundantly?

Let me finish by quoting a good chunk of Scripture which speaks into this acutely – Romans 12:3-21:

For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you. 4 For just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, 5 so in Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others. 6 We have different gifts, according to the grace given to each of us. If your gift is prophesying, then prophesy in accordance with your faith; 7 if it is serving, then serve; if it is teaching, then teach; 8 if it is to encourage, then give encouragement; if it is giving, then give generously; if it is to lead, do it diligently; if it is to show mercy, do it cheerfully.

Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. 10 Be devoted to one another in love. Honour one another above yourselves. 11 Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervour, serving the Lord. 12 Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. 13 Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practise hospitality.

14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. 15 Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. 16 Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited.

17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. 18 If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. 19 Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ says the Lord. 20 On the contrary:

‘If your enemy is hungry, feed him;
if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.
In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.’

21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.


* In his book Musicophilia, eminent neurologist Oliver Sacks estimates that “perhaps five per cent of the population” are “truly tone deaf” – see page 107.

** Of course the ultimate reason to cultivate these fruits is because Christ Himself embodied them perfectly. We love because He first loved us (1 John 4:19). We have joy because for the joy that was set before Him He endured the Cross (Hebrews 12:2). We have peace because He made peace through His blood, shed on the Cross (Colossians 1:20). We have patience because He was first patient with us, not wanting anyone to perish (2 Peter 3:9). Etc etc.

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