Myth: Music Is Neutral
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Reformed Practice - Music

Several decades ago, when I was a teen, we were shown ‘shock’ films to scare us into driving safely. We saw some gory accidents on the screen, heard the grinding metal and shattering glass. How effective their campaign was I am not sure. There are some who try to do the same today with music, whether rock or worldly music, and they present it in the most derogatory colours possible so that young people would be scared about listening to this kind of music. They say, without support, “It’s devil music. If you listen to it you will end up committing terrible sins.”

Although there certainly are connections which can be drawn between the music we listen to and the lifestyle we live, I think we need to be careful of drawing a one to one relationship. Teens today are not easily duped; they want to know the ‘why’ of things. I did back then too, but sometimes I never got an answer other than, “because I said so”. Well, that should have been good enough I suppose, but I was no different than teens today, I wanted real answers. Fair enough. But having been a teen myself I also now know that when real answers were given, I tended to discount and discredit them because the information I heard did not agree with what I wanted to hear and so I dismissed it. Now, I want to be brutally honest, in my flesh as Paul would say, I would like to listen to some kind of worldly music too. Not the words, just the music. However, when I look at the facts, it makes me realize there is more at stake than just listening to some musical notes.

I must confess that as a teen I listened to rock music, but when the Lord began to work in my life there were certain things I needed to deal with and one of them was music. Although I had a sense about this kind of music (just the sound of it) that it was wrong, yet there was something about it that tugged at my heart. If you have listened to it, you will know what I mean. What was that tug? I have, since that time, been able to look into various aspects of the rock music culture and found it shocking and evil. One thing I found, by conducting a survey in a Reformed Christian school, was that young people tend to listen to the music, not because of the words but just for the music. Knowing this made it all the more important for me to understand what the effect of music is on the heart and soul of a person and how music influences the lives of those who listen to it.

The first question that needs to be addressed is, “Is music a neutral art medium or not?” If it is neutral, then we can dismiss the whole issue of beat and rhythm of music and focus primarily upon the words or the performers. If we did this, look only at the intentions of the singers and the words, we would find that worldly music, including rock music, is profoundly ungodly. But I am not going to focus on the lives of those who sing these songs, nor the words, but upon the music itself. The question is, does music have an effect upon us or not? Just the other day I had a discussion with a teenager about the neutrality of the art forms, in particular, the written form. He had just read the book, The DaVinci Code, which he said was a ‘good read’. However, I had done a little reading about the book myself and knew that it portrays an antichristian message. He argued that it was just a good story and he would not be affected by a story, which portrays Jesus as having married Mary and other blasphemous things. I said to him, ‘part of the problem is that we are so desensitized to these things in the culture we live that it does not impress us’. ‘Do you realize what blasphemy against God means?’ I asked. Of course he did. ‘But how does that relate?’ he asked. Since we had been talking about music in our discussion as well, I gave him the following answer: Music and books are all art forms and as such they are not simply neutral. There are some things in all the arts, which make us very uncomfortable. For example, if you take one of the contemporary pieces of art where they put a crucifix in a sealed glass container of urine, we are offended. There is now a piece of art that depicts the crucifixion, a picture of a man upside down with a crown of thorns, but if you look closely at the man who is painted as Jesus it is none other than Osama Bin Laden. We are offended. It is blasphemous and yet I suppose we could go through that art gallery and say, look at all this art, that is interesting and that is a bit strange. Yet, we should never think that having visualized a piece of art that we have not been affected by it. Likely, when we should be repulsed and aren’t we have instead become hardened to it. In reality there is nothing in life that is truly neutral. Even when we brush our teeth, we either do so to the glory of God or for another purpose. We do it to take care of the bodies God gave us or we do it to attract others to us. The same thing is true about music, even as art form it is not neutral. There is a message communicated through music. Take for another example a film, if you are watching it and you come to scary part and if there is total silence or classical music you are not nearly as scared as when there are eerie sounds. There is a dramatic effect upon you, and yet people continue to say, music is amoral, it is neutral. Why would a person continue to argue this when we all know that in all three of those situations, silence, classic and eerie music each has a different effect on our emotions? Although the music only accentuated the visual, the same would have happened, to a degree, even if we were not watching the film. Consider that many stage plays were done without a single word spoken; the music led you into the emotion of what was taking place on stage. Let’s not be foolish and deceive ourselves into thinking that music is neutral. There is such a thing as good and bad music. Luther long ago said,

“And you, my young friend, let this noble, wholesome, and cheerful creation of God [music] be commended to you. By it you may escape shameful desires and bad company. At the same time you may by this creation accustom yourself to recognize and praise the Creator. Take special care to shun perverted minds who prostitute this lovely gift of nature and of art with their erotic rantings; and be quite assured that none but the devil goads them on to defy their very nature, which would and should praise God its Maker with this gift, so that these …… purloin the gift of God and use it to worship the foe of God, the enemy of nature and of this lovely art....For whether you wish to comfort the sad, to terrify the happy, to encourage the despairing, to humble the proud, to calm the passionate, or to appease those full of hate —— and who could number all these masters of the human heart, namely, the emotions, inclinations, and affections that impel men to evil or good? —— what more effective means than music could you find?”[1]

I do not have time to respond to those who use the argument that Luther introduced worldly music into the church by simply changing the words. There are articles debunking this myth.[2] Note also what John Calvin said, “We know by experience that music has a secret and almost incredible power to move hearts.”[3]

Let me give you another example. Why don’t musicians, if the music itself is neutral, just take classic tunes, hymns or Psalters and add their own words that reflect their worldview? We know that would not work. The music does not match the words, which means the music itself is saying something. Yet, there are many who will never admit that the reverse, to put Christian words to worldly music, also does not work. Try singing “How Firm a Foundation” to the tune of “Mary had a little Lamb” and your own heart will tell you the words and music do not agree. Music speaks to our hearts and that is why it is such a difficult matter to pull away from this kind of music when we are brought to repentance. What a wonderful way to continue to please the flesh, when we can have the worlds’ music (flesh) and insert Christian (spirit) words. It seems to me the only people who are arguing for the amoral nature of music are those Christians who want to listen to the worlds’ music and insert Christian words. They want to mix the flesh and the spirit.

The point is this, if music is not neutral, which is what I am arguing, then music will certainly have an effect on those who listen to it. It will either motivate one to worship God or turn from God. If we look at the music produced by the world, especially Rock music, we learn that the lives of those who perform it are contrary to God’s word. It is their express purpose to be so by their own admissions. The main themes are sex, rebellion, drugs and the occult. I realize that with country/western music the themes are different, partying, women, relationships, trucks and booze. Yet, in either case, when we listen to such music there is a message that is being communicated through the music itself, irrespective of the words. When combined, they produce a powerful message. Even the unbelieving ancient philosophers understood this. Plato said, "Let me make the songs of a nation and I care not who makes its laws" and Aristotle is noted to have said, "...if one listens to the wrong kind of music 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."

But we must not simply let reasoning guide us in our conclusions; we must turn to the word of God, which is not silent on the matter. Music, in one way or another, is mentioned over 800 times in Scripture. However, you will never find godly music being used simply for entertainment or for direct evangelism or for any end in and of itself. Music in the Bible is used primarily in praise and in worship, either toward God or Satan. Music is clearly to be used as a tool to worship God. Paul says we should be, “Speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord” (Eph. 5:19) and we should “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom; teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord” (Col. 3:16). None of these words describe the world’s music. Paul says it is the melody that corresponds with the heart, not the beat. If you take the essential makeup of rock songs and religious songs, this becomes readily apparent. One focuses upon the beat and the other upon the melody. Actually, if we are honest, often when we say of a song, that was exciting or that was boring, the response was to the music rather than the words. While the music is important, the sole intent of music as sound ought to lead us to worship through the words rather than end in the sound. This is the biblical model of music.

Music was given by God to Israel. Music was to be spiritual just as any other activity. And just as sexually, as a God-given and glorious experience, can be corrupted and is corrupted through sin, likewise with music. When we look at the manner in which Moses was so precise and careful regarding the Levites with their music and singing, we realize that God is very serious about this activity. It is to be done to the glory of God. Look at what happened in 2 Chronicles 5, the glory of the Lord filled the house. We also know that the people who called for David to play before Saul knew the power of music. Those around Saul called for a musician, not a witch doctor or soothsayer. They understood that music in and of itself was not neutral. All that we do in life ought to serve the glory of God. There obviously is music that glorifies him and music that does not. Music ought to be a spiritual activity, not a carnal or fleshly one. We must ask ourselves whether the music we listen to glorifies God or do we listen to it because it somehow affects our flesh. If we like music because it moves our flesh rather than our spirits, it ought to be self evident that such music is not approved of God. Are we through the music we listen to, because of the words that are sung, moved to worship and adore the living God? Then focus is upon the words and not the music. Music is not amoral. The issue remains one of the heart.

Rev. Mark Kelderman is pastor of the Heritage Reformed Congregation in Burgessville, ON.

This article was first printed in the FRC Youth Messenger and has been republished with permission.

[1] Friedrich Blume, Protestant Church Music (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1974), p. 10.


[3]John Calvin, Works, Vol. VI