Henry Edward Krehbiel, a musician and teacher, once quipped, “Of all the arts, music is practiced most and thought about least.”1 Indeed, into today’s postmodern world, many people are convinced that music is to be felt and experienced, not thought about and analyzed. Because feelings are very subjective, the common view is that music means different things to different people; hence, its usage must be considered a matter of culturally-conditioned taste and preference. The notion that music is somehow governed by morality, or that musical expressions could or should be evaluated as right/wrong or appropriate/inappropriate according to external norms, is considered preposterous. Witness the almost irate statement that Maurice Zam, former director of the Los Angeles Conservatory of Music, made in a Chicago Tribune column to Ann Landers in 1993: “Let us emancipate ourselves from the myth that music has anything to do with morals. Music is as amoral as the sound of the babbling brook or the whistling wind. The tones E, D, and C can be sung to the words, ‘I love you,’ ‘I hate you,’ or ‘three blind mice.’”2
At face value, this illustration seems to hold, so people accept the premise as well. In fact, there are many today who would agree with Zam, including a large percentage of Christians.
Whether overwhelmed with the complexity of the issues or simply ambivalent, many
Christians question whether or not decisions for Christ need to be made regarding music.
A growing number feel that, as long as the lyrics are acceptable, the music itself
is not really an issue either for worship or everyday use. For them, music is simply a
medium and, as such, morally neutral.
This view is forcefully presented in Dana Key’s book Don’t Stop the Music. A Christian
rock musician, Key openly states that “sound is not the important issue. It’s meaning.
It’s what the song is saying—and the lyrics of a song are what gives us that meaning.”
He goes on to assert: “I believe that music (particularly instrumental music) is
absolutely void of moral qualities for either good or evil. This is not to say that there is not
good instrumental music or bad instrumental music. Instrumental music can be good or
bad, but that isn’t a theological issue—it’s an artistic one. The ‘goodness’ or ‘badness’
of instrumental music is based on the performers’ competence and skill. If the music is
played without skill, it is bad. If it is performed skillfully, it is good.”3
Thomas Dorsey, the famous gospel musician, came to the same conclusion. He
said: “The message is not in the music but in the words of the song. It matters not what
kind of movement it has; if the words are Jesus, Heaven, Faith, and Life, then you have a
song with which God is pleased, regardless of what critics and some church folk say.”4
Michael Tomlinson took a similar stance: “I believe music itself is without moral
qualities either for good or evil. The question has more to do with what the music is
employed to say or do than with the music per se.”5
Even classically trained Christian musicians go along with these ideas. In his book
Music Through the Eyes of Faith, Harold Best (Wheaton College) took the position that
“with certain exceptions, art and especially music are morally relative. . .”6
Harold B. Hannum, well-known and respected Seventh-day Adventist
musician and scholar, also maintained that “moral matters have
to do with human actions and relations to others, not with the
notes of a composition.”7
Later in the same work, he affirmed
that “moral and religious values should be kept separate from
purely aesthetic ones.”8
The evident strength and assurance in these statements
seems to suggest a consensus. So, why can’t the issue be laid
to rest once and for all? Perhaps the indignant suggestion that
conservative religionists and other “self-appointed guardians of
morals” (as Zam termed them) keep their interfering noses out of
it and let others get on with using and enjoying music according
to their tastes and preferences is valid? Or is it? Is there another
side to this issue?
Now, just to clarify, it should be said that it is legitimate to
affirm that aesthetic values are distinct from moral values. Aesthetic
criteria such as “unity, variety, balance, climax, integrity,
logic, and a feeling of inevitability”9
are rightfully used in evaluating
both musical compositions and performances. However, before
dismissing all evaluation as simply a matter of assessing these
parameters according to culturally-conditioned taste and preference
without reference to any moral dimension, let’s review the
AN HISTORICAL CONSIDERATION
In contemporary Western culture, music has come to be
viewed almost exclusively as a form of harmless entertainment
intended to provide pleasure and create congenial atmospheres
with individuals consulting their likes and dislikes as the basis for
usage. This was not so, however, in earlier times. For example,
two and a half millennia ago, music was considered to be such a
potent and influential force in society that leading philosophers and
politicians advocated its control by the nation’s constitution. This
was the case in Athens and Sparta, city-states of ancient Greece.
In the third century AD, Japan’s imperial office of music (the
Gagaku-ryo) was established to control musical activities.10 Other
ancient cultures, including those of Egypt, India, and China, evidenced
similar concerns. Legislation or governmental censorship
of this kind is considered almost unthinkable today.11 But, even
during the twentieth century, Communist, Fascist, and Islamic regimes
voiced concerns about and implemented laws within their
borders to control music.
Why all the fuss? What was the problem? For the ancients, the
problem was clear. They believed music affected the will, which,
in turn, influenced character and conduct. For example, consider
what Aristotle and Plato taught: “Music . . . directly imitates (that
is, represents) the passions or states of the soul—gentleness, anger,
courage, temperance, and their opposites and other qualities;
hence, when one listens to music that amadous a certain passion,
he becomes imbued with the same passion; and if over a long
time he habitually listens to the kind of music that arouses ignoble
passions, his whole character will be shaped to an ignoble form.
In short, if one listens to the wrong kind of person, he will become
the wrong kind of person; but, conversely, if he listens to the right
kind of music, he will tend to become the right kind of person.”12
There is no mistaking the clear relationship between music
and morality in this understanding. Half a world away, in China,
Confucius expressed a very similar understanding: “If one should desire to know whether a kingdom is well-governed, if its morals
are good or bad, the quality of its music will furnish the answer.
. . . Character is the backbone of our human culture, and
music is the flowering of character.”13
The Greeks and Chinese were not alone in their view. The idea
that music has moral influence is evident among early Christian
writers,14 the Roman writer Boethius,15 and many others. Even
the statement of a prominent contemporary cultural anthropologist,
Alan P. Merriam, has strong implications for the connection
between music and morality. He wrote: “There is probably no
other human cultural activity which is so all-pervasive and which
reaches into, shapes, and often controls so much of human behavior.”16
If it can control human behavior, there is inevitably a
moral component to the discussion.
So what do we make of this? Clearly, there is wide historical
support apart from recent religious writers17 that music and morality
are intimately connected. Is this notion a relic of ancient superstition
or does it have some validity? One thing is clear: while
some think that music is neutral, many others historically believed
the very opposite. Obviously, it would be risky to decide the issue
simply by a present-day popular vote without looking at some
A THEOLOGICAL CONSIDERATION
From the Christian standpoint, there is a significant theological
issue that influences the debate. Clyde S. Kilby framed the core
concern in the form of a question: “A man may tie his shoe laces
or brush his teeth amorally, but can he create anything apart from
some degree of moral involvement?”18 There are a good number
of Christians who feel somewhat uneasy about the idea that, on
a sin-infested planet, products of human artistic creativity (which
originate from deep within) are somehow undefiled and not subject
to moral evaluation. As Kilby observed, common tasks or utilitarian
artifacts (a chair, for example) may possibly be adjudged
as amoral. But, can we really make that assessment of a product
of human artistic creativity in the fine arts such as a painting, a
novel, or a piece of music? There is general consensus that song
lyrics need to be evaluated as either compatible or incompatible,
right or wrong, in relation to Christian faith and outlook. But what
about the music itself? Doesn’t it need similar assessment? Unquestionably,
if we respond in the affirmative, we enter a difficult
arena with another raft of perplexing issues to confront. However,
why should that challenge manipulate us into a default acceptance
that music is a neutral island?
Given the strong Christian belief in a moral universe, the
question could well be asked: Why, then, have so few Christians
grappled with this problem? Furthermore, why have so many argued
for the moral neutrality of music—and the arts as a whole,
for that matter? Frank E. Gaebelein makes the following perceptive
observation which throws considerable light on this: “The
bulk of the work being done in the field of Christian aesthetics
represents Roman and Anglo-Catholic thought. Its roots go deep
into sacramental theology, Thomism, Greek philosophy, and
such great writers as Dante.”19
The dominance of Roman and Anglo-Catholic thought in the field of Christian aesthetics is highly significant. During the Middle Ages of Western cultural history, when this stream of theological thought was the prevailing influence, human creativity came to be seen as an aspect of humanity that was not touched by the fall of Adam into sin; rather, it was considered a pristine remnant of the original imago dei. This proved to be a consequential pre-supposition that still persists. 20 It meant that, in evaluating the arts, appeal was made to aesthetic criticism to ensure good-quality art, but moral accountability was never an issue because the creative impulse was considered to be essentially pure and innocent. Even the immoral life of an artist was considered of little concern as long as he or she produced aesthetically superior art. And, given that only the best was good enough for God, the best was equated with aesthetic excellence. So it was that during the time when the church dominated Western society, aesthetic excellence also came to be identified with the religiously acceptable.
Hence, aesthetic evaluation came into prominence in Christian
thinking about the arts to the point that it eclipsed moral considerations.
However, as the church lost its hold over society and
the culture became more secular, multiple worldviews surfaced,
and aesthetic pluralism also emerged.21 As aesthetic excellence
and the development of good taste continued to be upheld as the
only way to evaluate music, so-called good-quality expressions of
various styles including Rock, Techno, Classical, Jazz, CountryWestern,
Soul, and a host of other genres, each with their own individual
aesthetic standards, inevitably became acceptable forms
of musical expression, even in worship contexts.
While this may bring some understanding to developments
within the Roman and Anglo-Catholic traditions, particularly since
Vatican II, for many thoughtful Protestants, this paradigm does not
take into account the “radical distortion” that sin has wrought in
every field of human endeavour. Building on a concept of Emil Brunner,
Gaebelein suggested that “those areas of thought and activity
that are closest to our humanness and our relation to God are most
severely twisted by the bentness in us.”22 He went on to explain how
he understood this to work out in life as follows: “. . . in the more
objective fields like physics and chemistry, they are less affected,
until, in mathematics, the distortion approaches zero. By such an
estimate, the arts, which speak so subjectively and so very personally
regarding who and what we are in relation to our Maker, are
very vulnerable to the distortion that sin has brought into the world.
This means that Christian artists and all of us for whom the arts are
an essential part of life and culture must constantly be keeping our
eyes open to the marks of the Fall in them and in us also.”23
For Gaebelein, this does not mean that humanity is totally
worthless, and neither is the image of God utterly wiped out. By
the exercise of God’s common grace, “humanity has been in the
past and can still be today wonderfully creative to His glory.”24
However, we cannot be thoughtlessly laissez faire here.
If Gaebelein’s logic is correct, then Christians of evangelical
Protestant persuasion, including Seventh-day Adventists, have no
option but to explore meaningful and legitimate ways to evaluate
music, not only to determine what is beautiful and genuinely skillful
but also to establish what is morally compatible with the worldview
we espouse. This in no way supports cavalier, simplistic assessments
that lack integrity and are spawned through ignorance.
What I am suggesting is no easy task, or perhaps many would
have already successfully tackled it. In the next article, “Music
Matters (Part 3),” I will offer two suggestions as a beginning. They
both grow out of the fact that belief in the moral neutrality of music
1. An aphorism quoted in Australian Journal of Music Education, 27 (October 1980):12.
2. Maurice Zam in a letter to Ann Landers, Chicago Tribune, August 19, 1993.
3 Dana Key with Steve Rabey, Don’t Stop the Music (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan Publishing House, 1989), 69. This is very similar to Oscar Wilde’s view about literature: “There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written or badly written. That is all” (Oscar Wilde, quoted in James L. Jarrett, The Quest for Beauty [Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall Inc., 1957], 216.)
4 Thomas A. Dorsey quoted in Oral L. Moses, “The Nineteenth-Century Spiritual Text: A Source for Modern Gospel,” in Feel the Spirit: Studies in Nineteenth-Century Afro-American Music, George R. Keck and Sherrill V. Martin, eds. (New York: Greenwood Press, 1988), 50.
5 Michael Tomlinson, “Contemporary Christian Music is Christian Music,” in Ministry 69 (September 1996):26.
6. Harold M. Best, Music Through the Eyes of Faith (San Francisco: Harper, 1993), 42.
7 Harold Byron Hannum, Christian Search for Beauty (Nashville Tenn.: Southern Publishing Association, 1975), 51.
8 Ibid., 112.
9 Ibid., 50.
10 Ivan Vandor, “The Role of Music in the Education of Man: Orient and Occident,” in The World of Music 22 (1980):13.
11 An evidence of this is the furor caused in the United States, when, in the mid-1980s, it was suggested that popular music recordings should carry some kind of warning label regarding explicit, pornographic, and violent lyrics—let alone music.
12 Donald Jay Grout, A History of Western Music, rev. wd. (London: J. M. Dent and Sons, 1973), 7.
13 Confucius in The Wisdom of Confucius, Lin Yutang, ed. (New York: Random House, 1938), 251-272.
14 See, for example, the writings of the early church fathers such as Basil, John Chrysostum, and Jerome in Oliver Strunk, Source Readings in Music History: Antiquity and the Middle Ages (New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1965), 64-72.
15 Ibid., 79-86.
16 Alan P. Merriam, The Anthropology of Music (Chicago: Northwestern University Press, 1964), 218.
17 For example, Ellen G. White, Testimonies for the Church (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press, 1948), 4:653.
18 Clyde S. Kilby, Christianity and Aesthetics (Chicago: Intervarsity Press, 1961), 24.
19 Frank E. Gaebelein, The Christian, the Arts and Truth: Regaining the Vision of Greatness, D. Bruce Lockerbie, ed. (Portland Oreg.: Multnomah Press, 1985), 56.
20 This view is still strongly presented in Jacques Maritain, Creative Intuition in Art and Poetry, Bollingen Series XXXV, no. 1 (New York: Pantheon Books, 1960), 374-376; John W. Dixon, Jr., Nature and Grace in Art (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1964), 61, 70, 73, 76, and 200; Winfried Kurzschenkel, Die Theologische Bestimmung der Musik (Trier: Paulinus Verlag, 1971), 328-334. The subject has been discussed in detail in Wolfgang Stefani, “Artistic Creativity and the Fall: With Special Reference to Musical Creativity,” unpublished paper (Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Mich.: 1987).
21 Roger Sessions alluded to this general problem at the outset of a chapter on aesthetic criteria in his classic book Questions About Music (New York: W. W. Norton, 1971), 124.
22 Gaebelein, The Christian, the Arts, and Truth, 74.
23 Ibid., 74, 75.
24 Ibid., 75.
Wolfgang Stefani, Ph.D., is a pastor in the Park Ridge and Flagstone
Seventh-day Adventist Churches in the South Queensland Conference
of Seventh-day Adventists, Australia.