Classical music and atheists: Art and context

It’s the holiday season again. And concert halls are bursting with various classical music concerts. Seasonal favourites include things like Händel’s Messiah and Bach’s Christmas Oratorio. But have you ever stopped to consider how these pieces might sound to non-Christian listeners? If you haven’t, here’s a little tongue-in-cheek demonstration.

Of course, there is a lot of classical music with themes that are not religious. So the claim about “most classical” here might be a slight exaggeration. And then there are pieces that are so beautiful that one is just swept away by the music no matter what the lyrics are. But there are lot of average pieces that are not so lucky.

Usually for me it is important to understand the context of an art piece in order to really enjoy it. And if the context happens to be something completely nonsensical like “our beard-dude is great, all praise him” which is then repeated for the next 60 minutes, it can get quite boring, or ridiculous, and usually both. And it’s not that I would not understand it. I was brought up in the Christian religion and culture. I just let go of the religion when as I was old enough to make my own decisions.

Of course, there is lot of other culture too which is silly or does not make much sense. But I think the effect is worse in Western classical music as it is often taken so very seriously. The whole dressing up and being all pompous combined with the nonsensical content reaches a completely new level of ridiculousness.

It is sad to think how much energy, effort, and talent has been spent on this inane stuff in the last 500 years. Hopefully our culture is finally moving on from that. Perhaps we can now spend the next half a millennium writing really beautiful pieces about the Easter Bunny.

Happy midwinter everyone! Our journey towards light has begun again.

Satanic deed for collecting souls on Halloween

Happy Halloween everyone! Have you ever wondered what typeface Satan would use? No? While this might seem like a trivial question to you, for a graphic designer who wants to dress up as Lucifer himself, this is of course a crucial issue. And now that I have solved this, I may as well let all you Printer’s Devils enjoy it too. So be my guest and download your very own contract (deed) for selling your soul to the devil for free.

I have formatted it so that you can print 2 copies on an A4 sheet and then cut off the white edges leaving just the deed with the parchment background. The quality should be enough for any basic home or office printer.

Download deed for selling soul full colour version here (pdf, 665 kB)
(Coincidentally, nice file size, eh!)

Download deed for selling soul grayscale version here (pdf, 596 kB)


The text is original by me, and I hereby release it under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License. Feel free to use the deed to amuse you, your family, and your friends. If you want to share this online, go ahead, but I would appreciate a mention of the origin and if possible also a link back to here. The background image is from, which also prevents this being used commercially.

I tried to word it so that it shouldn’t offend or scare anyone too much. It has clauses that are made to be humorous, but should also actually clarify possible legal questions. Also I tried pre-empting some of the debates that it might cause. Like it has an escape clause for the event that there are no souls. It makes clear while it deals in immaterial things (‘souls’) this does not affect other immaterial rights like copyright. And as the Prince of Darkness is a sly one, it only hints at people receiving wealth and sex in exchange for this deed. So you don’t end up with the pressure of actually delivering anything. Of course, it’s totally up to you and your resources if you actually wish to deliver some of these…

The full text of the deed reads as follows:


I, …………  hereby relinquish my soul (my incorporeal essense) to the holder of this deed, to be collected after my death.

  • 1. I retain full possession of my soul as long as I am alive, no matter however so slightly.
  • 2. This deed does not affect any copyright, immaterial, or other earthly rights, recognized by human courts, before or after my death.
  • 3. I take no responsibility about whether my soul does or does not exist. I am not liable in the case there is nothing to collect.
  • 4. Similarly, I acknowledge that in exchange for signing this deed I might or might not receive immeasurable earthly riches, debauchery, and whatever I desire. (But it could happen!)

Signed ……………

In case you or your victims are worried about any legal issues, you can have people sign this with just their first names or even nicknames. You can tell them that, ‘it doesn’t really matter because we know who you are, mwhahaa!’ Another good idea is to burn the deeds after signing if you’re outdoors or have a fireplace or something. This will add a nice theatrical effect – call it something like sending it to hell or archiving it in fire. It at the same time ‘validates’ the contract for HELL and nullifies it for earthly law.

If you are wondering what is the difference between a contract / agreement and a deed, it’s quite simple. A contract would be signed by both parties. A deed is kind of one-way action, and thus it is signed only by one person. Like in this case, the signatory is just giving something away which doesn’t require the consent of the receiving party.

And the typeface issue? Well, I didn’t want to spend too much time on this one, so I kept it simple. At first I thought it should be Didot or Bodoni, because Satan is basically a dandy. And then it needs a drop of blackletter to signify the gravity – and perhaps also the Christian roots of the concept – of the soul. (I know, it’s a cliché, but it works.)

Go and conquer the world childrren of daaarrknessh!

But the combination of a Didone and the background image is not the most readable. I thought that in a Halloween party or club the lights will be dim and perhaps coloured. So best to make it as readable as possible. So instead went for good old Caslon. As they say, when it doubt, set it in Caslon. Caslon is very readable but it also has nice blackness, gravity, and a slight air of an older world.

Phatic seasons greetings

Phatic Communication
Here you go, phatic greetings e-card. Original photo by Laszlo Ilyes @ Flickr.

Timothy Donaldson’s tweet made me think about how much mid-winter is the season for phatic communication. I think phatic communication is one of those small, but nevertheless delightful points of communication theory.

Phatic communication means messages which do not convey new information, but simply aim to keep the communication channel open. The term was coined by Malinowski and elaborated by Roman Jakobson, who writes:

[M]essages primarily serving to establish, to prolong, or to discontinue communication, to check whether the channel works […], to attract the attention of the interlocutor or to confirm his continued attention […]. This set for contact, or in Malinowski’s terms phatic function, may be displayed by a profuse exchange of ritualized formulas, by entire dialogues with the mere purport of prolonging communication.1

All, or at least most communication, can be said to contain a phatic element. But many messages are almost purely phatic. This includes our daily ‘Hellos’,Good mornings’, and so on. An engineer bent on efficiency might now say that if this communication doesn’t convey information, it seems useless and we might as well stop doing it. But as John Fiske points out, the importance of phatic communication is not so much in what is said, but in the fact that it is said at all:

My ‘Hello’ may not alter or develop the relationship, but not saying ‘Hello’ would certainly weaken it.2

Therefore, I always joke to my students that they should stop saying ‘Hello’ in the morning and simply state ‘Phatic communication’ to each other. After all, it doesn’t really matter what you say, as long as you say something which fulfils the phatic function.

Seasons greetings, Christmas, and New Year cards are a fun example of phatic communication. They are not quite as mandatory as greetings when we encounter each other face to face. However, I think it is the very phatic nature of the cards that make people nervous about them. We realise – consciously or unconsciously – that sending that card once a year sends an important signal, even if you haven’t seen the recipient in a long long time. On the one hand we realise a simple Xmas card is quite trivial, but at the same time we know not sending it might be construed or misconstrued as a message of hostility or neglect.

Evolutionary psychology tells us that women spend more energy on social relationships than men. We can see how this is reflected in the stereotypical couple where the husband isn’t very interested in the cards at all. However, at the moment I don’t have the time or energy to find studies on the matter, but it might be a fun avenue to pursue further some other time.

So, this year, why not just skip the cliche statements of traditional greetings cards, and just send phatic greetings to all! 😉

Phatic Greetings
And one more! It even has the mandatory lens flares! Original photo by Stella @ Flickr.
  1. Jakobson, R. (1960) Closing statement: Linguistics and poetics. In Style in Language, (Ed. Sebeok, T.A.), MIT Press, Cambridge, MA []
  2. Fiske, J. (1990) Introduction to Communication Studies. 2nd edition. Routledge, London. []