Is Music Morally Neutral?
I believe that a Christian composer has the freedom to use any style, any materials. No style should be considered off limits in expressing the Gospel.
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—communicate belief, or propositional truth. Music style is neutral, ethically and morally.
Neutral—An Open Universe for the Christian Artist
I believe in an open universe for the Christian artist. My contention is that this ought to be our starting point, theoretically, as Christians. Any chord, any rhythm, any instrument should be theoretically acceptable for worship. The sound of a sax is not more immoral than a clarinet or a violin. A reggae beat is not more evil than a waltz or a march.
However, for a given group of people, a given instrument or rhythm may not be appropriate because of its associations (I’ll develop this a bit later). But even in this case, as I wrote in The New Worship, I would attempt to teach everyone to be “strong” (as did Paul) and to accept meat offered to idols (read in place of that “music”)–for, as Paul said, “the earth is the Lords.” Nevertheless, I would not force, constrain, or cajole anyone to eat meat offered to idols (or listen to any music style) if it bothered their conscience. Nor would I want to look down on them or make fun of them if they chose to refrain. Paul teaches each of us to be convinced, and to act only from faith (Romans 14:23). But again, teaching people to be strong is vital. I should even think that any music style should be redeemable. If someone does something bad with a style (associates it with something unhealthy), the Christian should be allowed, with wisdom, to associate it with something good.
But Not Neutral in Some Senses
In some senses I hold that music is not neutral. It’s not neutral emotionally. It can arouse emotions and induce physical actions. It can stimulate you to tap your foot, nod your head, or sway your body. It can convey the feelings of transcendence and intimacy. Musical sounds are active and alive–sound waves literally hit your body. You can actually feel loud, low sounds waves hitting your chest. But the fact that sounds strike your body is not immoral in my view. I understand that we are often persuaded by our emotions, and music appeals to the emotions. I would agree that when music is combined with words, music could be highly persuasive, because it heightens the meaning of words.
Music Associations—the Most Troubling Area
Music associations are, for me, the most troubling area for the Christian community. In worship contexts, sometimes people are better off not knowing the associations. For example, if congregations do not know that a particular rhythm is associated with a sexy dance step, it is just appreciated for its energy and vitality without any sexual overtones. I also think parents have every right to be concerned with the environment, the culture, that goes with a particular music. For example, drugs have been associated with certain musics. Paul teaches, “Everything is permissible—but not everything is beneficial.” (I Cor 10:23, NIV). Especially is this the case when unhealthy/ungodly texts accompany music. The music that captivates and entices us, associated with the lyrics, could indeed become a snare.
With music without words, however, meanings are more ambiguous, because unlike a representational painting, music itself is invisible and contains no concrete images. There is no interior beacon of reference or meaning upon which everyone can agree. People can and do draw different inferences (meanings) from the same musical passages depending on their experience and the associations they make with the music. Our minds are not passive, but active in making associations.
For example, when I grew up in Vancouver B.C. in the early 50’s, there was in those days an understanding that my brother would not play the sax in church because it was associated with dance halls–but the clarinet was OK. The sax was thought to have a sexy sound not appropriate to convey the reverence due to God. That changed in the 60’s. Today many people positively identify the sax with contemporary worship bands and that particular problem of associations doesn’t exist.
Similarly, my Christian piano teacher tried to dissuade me from using complex jazz chords in church settings, although he had no problem with my playing rhythms originating from ragtime!
Acts 2 & the Tongues of Fire
I would argue that the “tongues of fire” passage in Acts 2 teaches that the Gospel can be preached in any language. And if the Gospel can be preached in any tongue, then any music style could also be implied, and in fact, be inevitable, because musical styles mimic the inflections, syntax of language. Music reflects language. Moreover, music is just the next cultural step. People speak the Gospel and then sing it.
What about Scientific Studies, Dissonance?
As for finding ethical reasons for avoiding certain musics in scientific studies, I find these studies inconclusive. Certainly, music can speed up your heartbeat, etc., but is that ethical or moral? Plants, they say, prefer classical music. But what meaning does that have for us?
I hear arguments against the use of dissonance in worship because studies show that babies wrinkle their faces and show dislike when they hear dissonances–but why shouldn’t they! Dissonance, analogically, often represents pain in music. Yet everyone experiences pain in life. We need a musical language which can address all of life, both the pain and the joy. Do we want to excise from Scripture all passages that convey emotions of hatred, anger, and so on?
This is as far as I’m going to go with this discussion right now. If you want to look into this subject more, I suggest you read Harold Best’s book Music Through the Eyes of Faith. Chapters 12 and 13 of my book, The New Worship, provide more rationale and more scriptural backing for the view expressed here. I also understand that other good Christians have differing views on this subject and I honor them and their views too.
Even more important, study Roman 14 and I Corinthians 8-10, because Paul has much more to say about these so called “grey areas.”
Dr. Barry Liesch is Canadian, born in Vancouver B.C., and professor of music at Biola University (LA area). He has been fortunate to work with pulitzer prize winner Bernard Rands and be the T.A. for pulitzer prize winner Roger Reynolds. Awarded Ph.D. from University of California, San Diego, he heads up the Music in Worship program in the Music Conservatory and loves working with Biola students. He’s a worship leader, keyboardist, arranger, published author of two worship books, and performer/arranger for several albums & CDs. Find out more on his website, worshipinfo.com.