Music and Morality
By Gary D. Erickson
When modes of music change, the fundamental laws of the state change with them.–Plato
Music has the power to change character. –Aristotle
One quick way to destroy a society is through its music.–Vladimir Lenin
Is there a music which can be called “sacred music”? If we are talking about a group of rhythms and sounds outside its cultural surroundings no! There is no intrinsically sacred sound; just as there is no sacred place per se. Sacred music must be defined, not in mechanical characteristics but by its motive, context and cultural implications. Taken outside its cultural setting music is amoral.
The Roman Catholic Church has debated for years the correct Gregorian chant, because it is considered to be sacred music. The chant was homophonic (singing one tone at a time), and the exact technique is very critical, for it involves a doctrine of the church. It was not until the Middle Ages that polyphony was born (blending more than one tone simultaneously). From a biblical point of view we cannot say any particular style of music is sacred, without considering the cultural milieu from which it comes.
Music is organized sound, and consequently it is very difficult to describe with words. So many new musical sounds have rushed on the scene, we have not adopted words to describe them adequately. We can only set forth some basic principles by which each musical piece must be judged independently. The following points will be helpful in characterizing true gospel music, distinguishing it from the secular.
1. Lyrics. Among the factors that make music sacred or secular are first of all the lyrics. Since the Bible is the sole rule of faith for the Christian, everything must be judged by its high standard. Good Christian music transcends the mechanics of music form and emphasizes the message; this is in contrast to the popular song, which in many cases trivializes the words and magnifies the music. Much popular music is filled with ambiguities, fabricated experiences and phoniness. It capitalizes on the trivialities of life. It preaches quick, careless solutions to the complexities of the human dilemma or simply leaves them unresolved.
The true gospel song has a message of hope and says it clearly and strongly. It does not parrot the forlorn despondency of the sinner, nor does it drift through clouds of ambiguities, leaving the listener confused as to the powerful message of hope through Jesus Christ our Lord. The Bible does not hide the negative realities of life, but it always gives hope in the face of life’s most difficult situations.
True gospel music will have lyrics that do not give priority to the sentimental, popular and sensational at the expense of good biblical theology.
2. The musician. The attitude and purpose of the performer is very critical to true gospel music. In the day of so much recorded music this issue becomes very complex. We are very naive about the religious beliefs, lifestyle and purpose behind the music of many of the artists to whom we listen. In such cases, listening objectively can be edifying. Nevertheless, we must be cautious about knowingly supporting musicians who are evildoers and do not believe the true gospel message. Having them in our churches and knowingly patronizing their cause can-not contribute to the well-being of good gospel music. The life and beliefs of the musician and the message in the music must be in harmony with the word of God in order to be true gospel music.
3. Compatibility of music and lyrics. There must be a unity between the words and the music of a song. They should complement one another. The music to a song is not neutral, nor is it just a kind of lubricant to get the words across, it is a dynamic force deserving careful consideration.
The message is very important to gospel music, to the extent that music must color and reinforce the general thought of the message. The music can swallow up the words by overpowering them, or it can distract by running in discord to the general message. Lanny Wolfe says that music should serve as a frame to the lyrical content. A thousand-dollar musical frame can be put on a ten-dollar lyrical picture or vice versa. The frame should always complement the picture in a balanced way.
Calvin Johansson, in the following juxtaposed lists, contrasts the characteristics of gospel and popular music today.
Gospel Music Pop Music
Nonmaterial Material profit
Sacrifice Immediate gratification
Discipleship Ease of consumption
High standards Least common denominator
Principles above success Success first of all
Encouragement of the best Mediocrity
As this comparison indicates, pop music offers little to the mood and motive of the gospel message. Compatibility of message and music will characterize true gospel music. Packaging lyrics concerning the profound and sacred aspects of the gospel (i.e., the Crucifixion, holiness of God, commitment and discipleship, etc.) with music that is novel, amusing and sensational seem garish and disrespectful.
Volume control has a great deal to do with the delivery of the message of a song also. Music volume that overpowers the words and makes them unintelligible cannot be classified as true gospel music. When the lyrics become just background garble, the music is reduced to just an entertaining performance.
4. Music and culture. Studies have shown that people react emotionally to certain sounds and rhythms fairly consistently, i.e., fast rock music stimulates a “hyper,” tense response, whereas slow classical music tends to re-lax and slow down. This is not new information; we all have felt the contrasting feelings that certain music styles create.
In addition to this universal musical response, there is a second factor we want to consider. It is the power of association. The warrior in New Guinea is prepared for war when he hears the distinctive rhythm of the war drum. The sounds of the high school alma mater create feelings of nostalgia in the melancholy alumni. Those who are familiar with certain popular trends in music will have reflective feelings upon hearing that particular style of music. Mary Priestly, in her book entitled Music Therapy in Action, states, “Music has the power to retain close association with the state of mind the subject was in at the time of hearing it.”
It is my own opinion that many young people who attend Christian rock concerts fantasize that they are at a secular rock concert. Some professional Christian groups attempt to mimic the secular rock scene with long hair, light shows, smoke, choreography, vulgar gesticulations, freakish dress, jamming guitars, incessant drumming, shrieking and chanting vocal sounds, etc. With so much visual and auditory stimulation coming directly from the rock culture it cannot help but distract from the gospel message. Especially since the true gospel message is in direct contrast to the wickedness for which the rock culture stands.
Certain styles of music in our culture today will pro-duce negative feelings that will in turn distract from real gospel music. Certain tones and rhythms will appeal to the carnal man; therefore, they will contribute to evil thoughts and feelings. The heavy, pulsating beat, as in disco music, demands physical action. The sustained high tones of guitar licks tantalize the nerves. The deep, throbbing percussion, guttural vocal sounds and passion-ate whispers have sexual overtones. The loud, mystical, discordant sounds signal out-of-control, unrestrained emotions and behavior.
Bob Larson in his book, Rock, describes the danger of the rock music style:
An incessantly driving, pulsated beat pattern is not inherently evil, but when applied for a protracted period of time at a high volume level, its spiritual effects can be devastating, especially at live concerts. Like any repetitious assault on one’s neurosensory apparatus, it may shut down the conscious mental processes. This is the same technique used in Eastern meditative disciplines such as transcendental meditation. The result is an in-road to the mind open for evil invasion….If that pulsation is loud and long enough, it may induce a mind set whereby the hearer has surrendered his volition authority. This is especially true in the case of the heavier rock groups, whose live performance can rhythmically manipulate an audience until they reach a zombie like state. In that condition their minds are nonobjectively open to the message of the music, and their bodies are possible prey to evil spirits that readily operate through such entrancing music.
The sounds described above do not seem compatible with the essence of the true gospel message. Gospel musicians must consider the cultural implications of music and, in turn, its effect upon the message. If certain sounds are so closely aligned with current worldly trends, they will cause reflective feelings of the former life in satan’s world. The music stimulates the memory and causes mixed feelings of opposing themes. The message can be lost in the quagmire of the human psyche, especially since so much music today is produced to be felt more than heard.
Since the birth of rock music it has been debated that the technical aspects of the music are a negative influence on the mind and emotions of youth. The jarring beat, discordant sounds, shrill guitar licks, throbbing bass and loud volume are seen as having a negative impact on the nerves and the ability to think properly. A recent experiment was conducted by a neurobiologist and a physicist from New Jersey to determine how different kinds of music rhythms affect the nervous system of white mice.
It turned out that mice exposed day and night to discordant sounds not only developed difficulties in learning and memory, as compared with a control group, but they also incurred structural changes in their brain cells. The neurons showed signs of wear and tear from stress….Could a jar-ring rhythm disrupt human thought processes as well? The researchers suspect that it could, al-though this pilot study shows the effects of disharmony only on mice. But Bird says, “what we are seeing here is the effects of disharmonious music on mammalian brains. And, insofar as human beings have mammalian brains, we cannot preclude the possibility that disharmony may affect human brains as well.”4
Rock concerts today are excessively physical with hand clapping, gyrating, dancing, shouting, etc. Since lyrics are minimized and the music is maximized, it seems that many young people who attend Christian rock concerts are more moved by the music than the message. Their excessive physical and emotional involvement is not pure praise, but only a catharsis for youthful energy and an expression of excitement. Too often the theme of the celebration is, “Let’s rock!”
This article ‘Music and Morality’ written by Gary D. Erickson is excerpted from his book Music: On the Rocks.