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 following considerations
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 further evidence.
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 is untenable.
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.