A fellow student once turned to me and said, “I spend all day in the practice room by myself. I am completely self-centred. What good am I to anyone else?” It is a question worth asking about music – what good am I to anyone else? Is the beautiful useful, even necessary, or merely a decorative extra?
What brought the question back to mind recently was hearing the story of moving the Ark of the Covenant. Music was integral to that celebration:
David and all the house of Israel were dancing before the Lord with all their might, with songs and lyres and harps and tambourines and castanets and cymbals.
In James’s reflection on the text, he noted that the singing, dancing and playing does not ignore the sadness of the past, such as the deaths of Saul and Jonathan. It doesn’t undo the bad things David does. It celebrates God’s presence and the way in which God’s presence travels with the people though the countryside and through the bad times as well as the good times. His reflection reminded me of Andrew Louth’s comments on the centrality of beauty and celebration in worship, as expressed in the works of early Byzantine church fathers:
this is not a merely aesthetic indulgence that ignores the sin and suffering of the world; rather, it is a conviction that the beauty of God calls out to us, drawing us to God, enabling us to overcome sin and make suffering a means of deepening the heart so as to understand more profoundly the fullness of God’s beauty.
My friend at the conservatorium finished her training and became a professional musician. She figured that it was worth being self-centred enough to do the preparation you need to do in order to have something beautiful to share with others. But a creative artist is probably never completely done with the question she’d voiced as a student: “what good am I to anyone else?” We always face the fact that things like music don’t provide the same kind of practical help that feeding and building and nursing do. So it helps if we consider that creative arts might be a different kind of useful and necessary. It makes for a robust contemplation of that question if we call to mind these suggestions that beauty and celebration are at the centre both of worship and of life.
 Andrew Louth, ‘“Beauty will save the world”: The formation of Byzantine spirituality’, Theology Today 61 (2004): 67-77.