In the previous article we began to explore the question of whether or not “the lovely” and “the admirable,” as mentioned in Philippians 4:8, have a moral dimension? Simply put: Is music morally neutral or is it subject to moral evaluation? Is it an issue of right and wrong, and ethical congruity with certain principles or merely a matter of subjective taste? We noted that there is fascinating historial evidence of the moral evaluation of music in a variety of cultures. Whether or not all their reasoning is valid from a Christian perspective, does not detract from the fact that music was historically considered to be part of a moral understanding of life. We also noted that the Western Christian tendency to evaluate music aesthetically rather than morally derives from an Anglo-Roman Catholic theological perspective developed in the Middle Ages. It centres around the understanding of whether or not humanity’s fall into sin affected our creativity. Christians of a Protestant heritage have no option but to explore ways of evaluating music for moral compatability with the worldview we espouse. The next two articles will suggest two starting points in that endeavour.


Speaking at the Second International Symposium on Music in Medicine at Ludenscheid, West Germany, in 1984, Manfred Clynes (a neurophysiologist, researcher, inventor, and acclaimed pianist) made the following statement:

Music in fact is an organisation created to dictate feelings to the listener. The composer is an unrelenting dictator and we choose to subject ourselves to him, when we listen to his music.1

What does this prominent scientist mean when he says music “dictates feelings?” How can music do this? One simple way to understand how this happens is to tune into a movie soundtrack, bypassing the picture for a while. How much can you determine about the film’s action simply by listening to the background music? Often quite a lot! Imagine a scene in a sci-fi horror movie in which a lethal monster spider is creeping up on an innocent, unsuspecting child. You can almost “hear” the creepy background music, can’t you? But, it is right here that we need to stop and ask a question: Why do film producers use music to accompany such scenes, especially when some would have us believe that words, not music, actually communicate meaning? And how do producers decide what music to dub with the scene? Why isn’t “approaching monster music” dubbed onto a movie scene of a birthday party or a baby nursery? If lyrics such as “sleep baby sleep” were set to “approaching monster music” would it become a lullaby? Or would addition of the text “Jesus loves me this I know” render it suitable for a worship context? In this last example, would we only want to make sure that the “approaching monster music” was composed creatively and performed skilfully, or would we evaluate the music as intrinsically inappropriate, even wrong, in that context?

While this may be an obvious example, several salient points about the nature of music are highlighted here and they must not be lost to our discussion. First, music apart from lyrics does carry a message. Music is not a neutral medium. Words are not required in order for music to have meaning. Film producers make decisions about music, not lyrics, in background music applications.

Second, while some may argue that music means different things to different people and that its affect is really only a matter of conditioned response, this does not account for the validity of certain major assumptions made by film producers. For example, incorporating music on a film soundtrack takes for granted that music impacts all people similarly. Indeed, if this were not the case a music soundtrack would be pointless. Even when a film is released internationally only language tracks are changed. The musical sound track that “dictates the feelings,” as Clynes put it, stays the same. The underlying belief is that background music will communicate the same basic message to all viewers, even across cultural boundaries.

Third, while it cannot be denied that with the rise of globalized mass media some mass conditioning regarding musical associations may have occurred, it is also clear that music’s impact is not only a matter of conditioning. Even before mass conditioning could be said to be a factor, producers seemed to be able to predict very accurately what music fitted with specific scenes or sequences. It has never been a hit-andmiss venture. Composers intentionally write specific scores for specific movies to achieve specific emotional responses.

Research over the last fifty years or so has verified that the way music is constructed and performed embodies certain inherent characteristics that have long provided intuitive clues to its meaning. That’s precisely why the secular industry makes informed decisions about the music it uses quite apart from lyrics that may or may not be present. Sadly, the “children of this world” seem to be wiser than the “children of light”2 in some of these things.

In the relatively recently established discipline of Sentics there is one example of how a growing body of documentary evidence is deciphering how human emotion is expressed and perceived, and how music is, in fact, a form of emotion communication. Indeed, respected contemporary thinkers about music have continued to affirm the conclusions of the Greeks about music representing the passions or states of the soul. For example, Susanne Langer wrote:

The tonal structures we call ‘music’ bear a close logical similarity to the forms of human feeling. . . . The pattern of music is that . . . form worked out in pure, measured sound and silence. Music is a tonal analogue of emotive life.3

In similar vein, Gordon Epperson maintained: “Music is the expression . . . of the emotions; an aural image of how feelings feel, how they operate.”4

In the development of Sentics, Clynes has merely begun to show how music does this. Having demonstrated that the expression of emotion occurs through certain predictable forms (which he termed essentic forms5 ), Clynes has gone on to show how musicians can manipulate the pitch and loudness of individual tones to embody essentic forms in a melody line. This is achieved much the same way tone of voice is modulated to make a sentence meaningful. He describes it thus:

In producing a melody, a composer places the notes so that they in effect fit the outline of the appropriate essentic form. . . . Musical tones are placed at suitable points along the path of an essentic form so that internally they can act as markers in the generation of the form. That is to say, the musical tones engender internally the motor pattern of essentic form corresponding also to program points of a touch expression of the same quality.6

When composers construct well and performers read and enflesh their compositions accurately, powerful communications can take place. Indeed, when an essentic form is expressed well “a melody has direct access to engender the emotional quality in the listener without the need of auxiliary symbolism.”7 As Clynes elaborated:

. . . it can touch the heart as directly as can a physical touch. A caress or an exclamation of joy in music needs not to be consciously translated into a touch caress or a physical ‘jump for joy’ to be perceived as of such a quality. It does so directly through perception of essentic form.8

Besides using the tones of a melody line, further embodiment of emotional communication can be demonstrated in the structure of the rhythmic pulse.9

Of course, all this brings Maurice Zam’s illustration, quoted in the introduction to Part 2 of this series of articles, into perspective. Actually, I am sure Zam was aware that the tones E, D and C never exist in clinical isolation in a piece of music. The surrounding harmonies, rhythms, phrasing, accentuation etc. make those three tones take on a variety of emotional colourations. Any composer setting Zam’s three sets of lyrics (“I love you” “I hate you,” and “three blind mice”) to music would not compose identically in each case.10 This is precisely where Zam’s “throw away line” and logic breaks down.

Without trying to be comprehensive at this point, enough has been provided to substantiate that a body of research now exists that demonstrates that music does communicate meaningfully in a way that can and ought to be evaluated for appropriateness, and even rightness or wrongness in a given context.

From a Christian viewpoint, emotions like anger, hate, fear, love, or joy are not intrinsically good or bad. However, to present the lyric, “Jesus loves me this I know” with an accompanying musical/emotional message of fear and suspense would not simply be a harmless mismatch of cognitive and affective communication. According to Christian belief it would surely be crass misrepresentation of the Gospel (especially in light of 1 John 4:18) and hence, morally wrong, not merely aesthetically poor. The same would be true if lyrics about Jesus’ love for humanity were presented accompanied by music portraying anger, violence, and aggression. Such mixed messages provide a confused communication of truth that is morally reprehensible, not just a matter of taste.

This last scenerio is not merely an idle, hypothetical example. Even in the late 1980s and 1990s, an extension of socalled heavy-metal rock music emerged and became known as Thrash or Speed Metal. The violence and aggression in the music was suitably acted out in the accompanying moshing pit where fans gyrated to the music in frenzied thrashing movements, sometimes even breaking limbs in the process. This type of music continued to be popular and was much in evidence at the 1999 Woodstock Music Festival. In an essay in Time, August 9, 1999, Lance Morrow described the arson, pillaging, and free-lance mayhem that “was much in the spirit of the music” at the festival.11 A crowd the size of Rochester, NY in hot conditions and under the influence of drugs and “vehemently moronic music” became a riot. He summed it up in the words: “Garbage in, garbage out.”12

When this form of music first emerged, however, some Christian churches in Los Angeles sponsored concerts and developed worship services around a “Christian form” of this music to cater for enthusiasts. Even Contemporary Christian Music magazine was in two minds whether to support or condemn this new phenomenon.13 While the older, maturer commentators tried to weigh up the pros and cons of violence in a Christian context, arguing about the end perhaps justifying the means etc., a letter from a young person to the editor of the April 1989 issue of the same magazine seemed to cut through the confusion. Alisa Williams from Chicago wrote:

What’s with this “Moshing for the Master” crap?! [Feb. ‘89] Some of those thrash people have their heads screwed up. I see absolutely nothing Christian about diving into an audience on top of people or running around like maniacs, risking being trampled to death! This kind of violence has no place in a Christian concert. No violence at all should be involved!

Now as for their “thrash” sound—it’s a bit too wild. I know we all have different musical tastes, but once you over step a certain point it’s just unbearable.

I know you mean well—You want to bring those headbanging unbelievers to Christ—but I think you’ve taken it a bit far. God bless you anyway!

By the way, this letter is not from an old granny. I’m 15 years-old!14

What this young person saw so clearly highlights the hypocracy of allowing the popular market to dictate music choice. Despite the recognized meaning of this music, some considered it acceptable simply because it was popular. If we have no external moral yardstick by which to evaluate our music, the market forces of the secular music industry will become the moral rudder by default. Ironically, within a Christian music context, this means that you end up with those knowing least about the Gospel determining most about its expression. No wonder we are often left with a plethora of mixed and confused musical messages in much of the contemporary Christian music scene today. As Seventh-day Adventist Christians we need to decide whether or not that is an appropriate fountain of inspiration for our musicians and our personal tastes to draw from and acclimatise to. Of course, that is in itself, a moral choice we each have to make.


1 Manfred Clynes, “On Music and Healing” in Music in Medicine: Proceedings Second International Symposium on Music in Medicine, Ludenscheid, West Germany, ed. J. Steffens (R. Spintge and R. Droh, 1985), 4.

2 Luke 16:8

3 Susanne K. Langer, Feeling and Form: A Theory of Art (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1953), 27.

4 Gordon Epperson, The Musical Symbol: An Exploration in Aesthetics (New York: Da Capo Press, 1990), 75.

5 Manfred Clynes, Sentics: The Touch of the Emotions (New York: Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1978), 26-41.

6 Manfred Clynes, “When Time is Music,” in Rhythm in Psychological, Linguistic and Musical Processes ed. James R. Evans and Manfred Clynes (Springfield, Ill.: Charles C. Thomas, 1986), 184-5.

7 Ibid, 185.

8 Ibid. It is unfortunate that in an article of this nature that all this cannot be practically illustrated. When presented in seminar form with musical examples it proves very persuasive.

9 See, for example, Manfred Clynes, Expressive Microstructure in Music, Linked to Living Qualities in Studies of Music Performance ed. Johan Sundberg (Royal Swedish Academy of Music, Stockholm, No. 39, 1983), 120-122.

10 Perhaps a comparison could be drawn with the use of the word “no” said in different settings. (For example, in anger, in disbelief, in fear, and in defiance.) Although the same word is used, the colorations of the voice communicate the very diverse meanings and emotions.

11 Lance Morrow, “The Madness of Crowds,” Time (August 9, 1999), 64.

12 Ibid.

13 See Doug van Pelt, “Moshing for the Master?” Contemporary Christian Music (February 1989), 20, 21.

14 Contemporary Christian Music, (April 1989), 4.


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.