Essay:Music is not neutral

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This essay is an original work by TerryH. Please comment only on the talk page.


Music is not neutral.

A number of modern music critics, both Christian and non-Christian, have attempted to assert that music is somehow "morally neutral." The debate within Christian circles is ardent and often acrimonious. For example, Dr. Barry Leisch of WorshipInfo.com states:

I contend, along with Harold Best, author of Music Through the Eyes of Faith, that music without words is morally neutral. By that I mean that sound by itself cannot express truth, or communicate belief or propositional truth. I also contend that music style is neutral, ethically and morally. No style should be considered evil or off limits in expressing the Gospel. I believe that a Christian composer has the freedom to use any style, any materials.[1]

On the other hand, David Cloud, of Way of Life Ministries, says this:

Common sense tells us that music is not neutral, that all music is not the same. Such an idea is strictly contrary to our experiences in life. There is sensual music and spiritual music, music for partying and music for worship, music for marching and music for dancing, music for romance and music for warfare. The notes and components of music are neutral, but when these are arranged into a pattern, that piece of music no longer is neutral but becomes a voice, a language.[2]

Mr. Cloud has a point. Any musical melody or counterpoint is a message, just as a phrase or sentence or paragraph—or an essay—is a message. Anyone who writes music for the theater, whether on the proscenium stage or its relatively new media of motion pictures or television, understands this point implicitly. For example, the famed composer Miklós Rózsa used multiple motifs in his various motion picture scores, so that a listener or motion-picture viewer can always recognize that Miklós Rózsa wrote the score if he has previously heard a Miklós Rózsa score or other work. But Miklós Rózsa did not write the same kind of music for the motion picture Ben-Hur (about a dissident Jew in Roman-occupied Israel at the time of Jesus Christ) that he wrote for a much later motion-picture project, The Power (about a research scientist who finds himself pursued by a murderer having preternatural powers, only to discover that he himself has comparable powers, and that was why the murderer targeted him).

Western man has known of the non-neutrality of music at least as long as classical (Greco-Roman) civilization has existed. Plato, for example, famously said,

Let me make the songs of a nation and I care not who makes its laws.[3]

Similarly, Aristotle said,

[If a person] habitually listens to the kind of music that rouses ignoble passions, his whole character will be shaped to an ignoble form. In short, 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.[4]

Far more recently, Dmitri Tiomkin, famous for his motion-picture scores and dramatic ballads, protested against the popular music of his day (1965), saying:

The fact that music can both excite and incite has been known from time immemorial...Now in our popular music, at least, we seem to be reverting to savagery...and youngsters who listen constantly to this sort of sound are thrust into turmoil. They are no longer relaxed, normal kids.[5]

One has only to listen to the sort of music that was popular then to understand what Mr. Tiomkin was talking about. And if anything, the current state of popular music is even worse today than it was more than forty years ago.

This is not to say that all genres of popular music affect people in undesirable ways. Anyone who has listened to a country-and-western song, and compared it to a rock-and-roll song, will readily recognize the calmative effect of the former and the incitatory effect of the latter. Even classical music has its various genres that have vastly different effects on the human emotions, and even works by the same composer can have radically different effects on their listeners. Anyone who has listened to Beethoven's Symphony No. 3 (the "Eroica") and compared it to Symphonies 5, 6 (the "Pastorale"), and 9, will understand this point.

Nor is the Bible silent on the moral content of instrumental music, in addition to lyrics. Saint Paul advised his readers to:
Speak to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. Sing and make music in your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. Ephesians 5:19-20 (NIV)

The phrase rendered "make music" above actually means to pluck a string on one of the most common musical instruments of Paul's day, the hand-held lyre. The point here is not that God tells us to use only one sort of instrument or another, but rather that instrumental music is at least as important as are any words that we sing to.

References

  1. Leisch, Barry. "Is Music Neutral." <http://www.worshipinfo.com/> Accessed June 9, 2008.
  2. Cloud, David. "The Heresy of Claiming that Music is Neutral." Way of Life Literature, Fundamental Baptist Information Service, 2001. Accessed June 9, 2008.
  3. Plato, The Republic. Quoted in Grout, Donald J. A History of Western Music. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1980, p. 9.
  4. Grout, op. cit., p. 8
  5. Los Angeles Herald-Examiner, August 8, 1965. Cited by Cloud, op. cit.
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