The morality of music has been fiercely debated throughout the centuries. We have come a long way from the simple, monophonic Gregorian chants of the early church. My goal for this post is not to be a final word, but rather a stepping stone for you in developing your own personal convictions about music.

It is next to impossible for me to write this post without my worldview showing through significantly. Because of this, I encourage you to read this article passively and consider the concepts I discuss rather than taking what I say at face value. I want to stir your thoughts so that you can make your own choices about these matters. I am sure I will step on a few toes, so feel free to disagree (or agree) with me in the comments section below.

What Makes Music Moral

Many people argue that music cannot be moral because it is simply a collection of different sounds arranged in an orderly sequence. However, I would argue that while the elements themselves may not be moral, they can be used in an immoral way.

For example, is language itself moral? I would say not, however people can use language in very immoral ways. If this were not true, you could blaspheme God to his face without fear of retribution, and church libraries would be filled with books like 50 Shades of Grey.

Is visual art moral? Not necessarily; but if photography and paintings could not be used for sin, pornography would be one of the smallest businesses in the world. It would simply be “another form of art” that we would display openly in our homes just like a picture of a beautiful landscape.

In the same way, music itself is not moral. However, I am convinced that it can be used in some very immoral ways. Some music is even designed to directly oppose God. In this article, I will describe some of the elements of music that I believe play a part in its morality.

How Music Affects People

We can all agree that music affects people. The same song can even affect different individuals in different ways. Lets take a look at some of the ways that music affects people every day.

Physically

Music can have a noticeable effect on people physically. People respond to “physical” music with strong, almost involuntary bodily reaction. For example, watch this video of a baby that can’t even talk listening to heavy metal (WARNING: this clip contains explicit language). Heavy metal music in particular has a very strong physical effect on people, clouding their judgment and making them behave like animals. If you need an example, just look up “mosh pit” on YouTube and you will see what I mean (WARNING: most of the mosh pit videos are filled with expletives).

Music also has an affect on our heart rate and hormone levels. Studies have shown that listening to slow, meditative music slows your breathing and heart rate. This can, in turn, reduce blood pressure. In the future, music therapy may even be used in the place of some therapeutic medications.[1]

While the physical aspect of music can be used for good, it can also be a bad thing. I do not believe that it is wrong to dance with music – in fact, many people in the Bible danced with music (see Psalm 149:3, Exodus 15:20, 1 Samuel 18:6). However, in all of these examples the dancing is a separate act from the music, not a result of it. I believe that dancing to music can be inappropriate when it is a compulsory reaction to the music, as in the example of the baby. Letting music control your body is similar to letting drugs control your body, and does not bring glory to God in any way.

Emotionally

Music has a huge effect on a person’s emotional state. One of the most powerful aspects of music is that it allows a listener to understand the emotion of the composer without actually feeling that emotion. These are called “perceived emotions”. Some music also reminds you of emotions from previous life experiences. This is called “felt emotion”.

Music also has a significant impact on how we perceive things. If you look at a “neutral” face while listening to music, your mind will trick you into thinking that the face is expressing the same emotions as the song you are listening to. Check out this video to see how music affects our perception of a neutral subject. Because of the effect music has on perception, almost all movies have a music score playing constantly.

While some emotions we experience when engaging in music is good, some are wrong. Should Christians listen to music that makes them feel angry, hateful, or envious? If I listen to a specific song whenever I am feeling angry, that song is most likely supporting that emotion. Is music that encourages ungodly emotions pleasing to God?

Spiritually

Music can also have strong spiritual effects on people. Songs tend to have the largest effect spiritually when a part of it resonates with something the listener or performer is currently experiencing in life. Most of the time this happens with music that has lyrics that are understood by the listener, but it can also happen with instrumental music or music of another language.

While there is definitely demonic music out there, most songs that stir a Christian spiritually would generally be considered “godly” songs. The biggest danger with this is when a Christian never listens to music that is spiritually deep. I am not saying that all music you listen to needs to be spiritual. However, if you only engage in music that is spiritually shallow, you put yourself at risk of becoming spiritually shallow.

Musical Content

One of the more obvious things that determines the morality of music is its content. Some of the content is flagrantly wrong, while other elements are more subtle.

Lyrics

The lyrics of a song can definitely be either moral or immoral. Some music praises God’s creation, while other music praises fornication and drug abuse. Sometimes even though a song has “good” lyrics, it may contain hints of ungodly themes such as lust or envy.

A lot of Contemporary Christian music is full of “empty” phrases and small distortions of the truth. Look at the lyrics of the song “Please Don’t Let Me Go” by Group 1 Crew. While the message is a plea to God for salvation, the phrase “please don’t let me go” implies that God actually might let someone go who was searching for Him. Music like this can sow a small seed of untruth in the mind of the listener. While it may never directly affect someone’s Christian life, it may negatively affect how they view God.

Listening exclusively to a specific genre of music can also be harmful. For example, the lyrics of many Southern Gospel songs can be summarized in this sentence: “This world is a terrible place full of sorrow, but it’s OK because some sweet day I will die and go to heaven.” While this may be true, listening to a constant diet of this kind of music can cause you to lose focus on what is actually important to Christ.

Vocal Quality

I had never really thought about this one until I heard a talk by Yuriy Kravets, Jr.[2] Some music – especially country and pop music – is sung in a very sensual voice. While this is not necessarily wrong, something to consider is “would my [current or future] spouse be okay with someone talking to me with that kind of voice?” One of the main reasons that this kind of music is so popular is because it appeals to people’s sensuality and makes them feel good.

Other Factors

There are some other factors that can affect the morality of music. I will try to be brief with these, as some of these can be very broad topics.

Context

While the context of a song may not make it moral or immoral, it can definitely render it appropriate or inappropriate. For instance, playing a folk song during a worship service would be generally considered inappropriate. However, that same folk song may fit perfectly in a performance at a local festival. Singing “Joy to the World” at a funeral would be quite out of place, but people expect to sing it during the Christmas season.

Other Listeners

Some of the music you enjoy may not be appropriate to listen to with everyone. As Christians, it is very important to consider those around us and how our music may affect them. It is especially important for us to consider our fellow Christians when choosing what music we play publicly.

The music you listen to can have an affect on your witness as a Christian. For example, listening to or performing music from a movie score carries the implication that you have watched that movie. If this is a bad movie, how does this affect your witness?

It is very important that the music you listen to does not negatively affect our brothers and sisters in Christ. You may not struggle with listening to heavy metal music, but one of your friends might. If you listen to a song around them that reminds them of heavy metal, it may encourage them to listen to music that causes them to sin. For more on this, read my post titled “Meat Offered to Idols”.

Music Composer or Artist

Some people argue that the composer or performing artist of a song can make it good or bad. I generally disagree on this point. Just because someone does not believe in God does not mean that what they say or create cannot be used for God’s glory. The Bible is full of stories of God using the acts of ungodly men for His glory.

One example that comes to mind is the gospel song “I Pledge Allegiance to the Lamb” by Ray Boltz. Years after this song was written, Ray publicly announced that he was a homosexual. Because of this, many Christians discarded his music as unfit for worship. People refused to listen to his music or even sing it a capella. Does the fact that he chose a life of sin make this song inherently evil? Look at the lyrics of this song[3]. I do not find anything wrong with any of these lyrics. In fact, think that they carry a powerful message of devotion to God.

We should, however, use extreme caution when choosing music written by someone that does not believe the same way we do. While we may agree with what they have to share, they still have a different worldview than we do. It is very easy for that worldview to come through in small amounts without us noticing.

Conclusion

In conclusion, I would like to say that music must be evaluated holistically (in its entirety). A song may have a beautiful melody, but inappropriate lyrics. Some music may be totally fine except for one phrase that goes against a Biblical teaching. In the end, everyone needs to make a personal choice about the music they listen to. I think it is important for Christians to form their own convictions about music that they can live by and defend.

Next up: my personal music standards

 

Additional Reading:

R. Emmett Tyrrell, Jr. – “Music and Morality” – http://spectator.org/40193_music-and-morality/

References:

1 – Betty Holt – “Do Different Types of Music Affect the Heart Rate?” – http://www.livestrong.com/article/352811-do-different-types-of-music-affect-the-heart-rate/

2 – Yuriy Kravets, Jr. – “overview of discernment in music” – http://www.ephrataministries.org/msg_detail.a5w?vlast_index=5081

3 – MetroLyrics.com – “I Pledge Allegiance to the Lamb” Lyrics – http://www.metrolyrics.com/i-pledge-allegiance-to-the-lamb-lyrics-ray-boltz.html

 

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