Is Music Neutral?

Music Carries a Message Even without Lyrics

Most Contemporary Christian Music (CCM) proponents say music is neutral and therefore all music is acceptable for the Christian. They say it is only the lyrics that make music good or evil.

Through the years, I’ve questioned different people regarding the neutrality of music. I’ve never talked to one unsaved person who felt that rock music was appropriate in combination with biblical words. There are a number of non-Christian authors who say that music is not neutral but has the ability to be good or evil. The majority of quotes used in this article are deliberately taken from those who do not claim to be Christian. The CCM people are claiming that the music-neutrality question is a dead issue, but according to my research there are still many who hold to the position that the style of the music definitely has moral implications.

CCM supporters argue that music is neutral or, in other terminology, amoral. The CCM supporters are the only ones I have found who believe this. This unique belief has gradually been formulated in the last thirty years or so out of necessity to justify CCM. When something is amoral, it is without morality and can have no standards or principles with respect to right or wrong.

When you take different colors of paint, a paintbrush, and a canvas, and put them in the hands of a person who makes moral choices, the resulting painting can be moral or immoral. When you take individual letters of the alphabet, you can form good words and bad words and create moral and immoral stories. I propose that in the same way, when you take individual notes and put them together with different rhythms, the resulting combination can be something having moral or immoral quality.

Ancient philosophers have believed and expounded on the moral power of music.

In Music and Philosophy, Athen-Griechenland, Plato wrote: “In order to take the spiritual temperature of an individual or a society, one must mark the music.”

M.S. Bothius (De Institutione Musica) wrote, “Music is part of us, and it either ennobles or degrades our behavior.”

The great writer and theologian, A.W. Tozer said, “If you love and listen to the wrong kind of music, your inner life will wither and die(as quoted in The Closing of the American Mind, New York: Simon & Schuster, pp. 68-81).

Music Communicates, with or without Lyrics

Most people agree on this point.

Twenty-two music scholars performed studies and wrote a book called Musical Communication, with their findings stating, “Music is the message.” Here are some of their quotes:

  • Like language, music can be conceived as a communicative medium. ... Music and language [are] analogous systems of communication.
  • Music is the essence of human social life because music is the purest form of communication.
  • The communicative aspect of music is something that cannot be denied.

In Exodus 32, Moses went up to a mountain to worship and get the commandments from God. In the meantime, the Israelites brought their gold to Aaron to melt down and make into a molten calf to worship. In verse 5 Aaron made a proclamation that tomorrow was to be a “feast to the Lord.” In verse 6 we are told that the people “rose up early… and offered burnt offerings… and sat down to eat and to drink, and rose up to play.” In verses 7–19, God told Moses:

“Go, get thee down; for thy people, which thou broughtest out of the land of Egypt, have corrupted themselves… I have seen this people, and, behold, it is a stiffnecked people: Now therefore let me alone, that my wrath may wax hot against them… And Moses turned, and went down from the mount… And when Joshua heard the noise of the people as they shouted, he said unto Moses, There is a noise of war in the camp… It is… the noise of them that sing do I hear. And it came to pass, as soon as he came nigh unto the camp, that he saw the calf, and the dancing: and Moses’ anger waxed hot…”

I doubt that Moses and Joshua could understand the lyrics of the singing from up on the mountain. There obviously was something in the sound of the singing that indicated something was wrong.

Music Communicates Moral Connotations, with or without Lyrics

CCM proponents differ with us on this point, believing that music apart from the lyrics is neutral. What do people who are not necessarily Christian think about this?

Jeremy Begbie, professor at Ridley Hall of Cambridge says in his book Resounding Truth: “It is indisputable that music is one of the most powerful media humans have at their disposal. Music is made and used by human beings, and human beings are never morally neutral creatures.”

Dr. Max Schoen says in The Psychology of Music: “The medical, psychiatric and other evidence for the non-neutrality of music is so overwhelming that it frankly amazes me that anyone should seriously say otherwise.”

The above cited music scholars and professionals believe music can be moral or immoral—never amoral. If they are right, music apart from words is not neutral but has the ability to be sensual. And if godly lyrics are added to sensual music, the sensual music can change the meaning of the godly lyrics. Just as you can say the name of Jesus in love and respect, you can say the name of Jesus in cursing. The way you say it—your tone of voice determined by your attitude, if you will—changes the meaning. You can say, “That’s great” and sincerely mean it; or you can say, “That’s great!” with a sarcastic tone of voice and completely change the meaning of the words. If music is not neutral, there can be music that, by the way it speaks, is not worthy or fit to be combined with godly lyrics. The ungodly music will change the meaning of the godly words.

The line of reasoning that music is neutral implies that the worst of heavy metal music combined with Christian words would be acceptable. If you were to listen to 60 seconds of heavy metal music with no lyrics attached, and list on the right-hand side of a piece of paper the fruit of the Spirit (love, joy, peace, etc.), and on the left-hand side of the paper list the works of the flesh (anger, hatred, malice, etc.)—which side of the paper would the heavy metal music seem to emulate? Music can have an attitude all of its own. Many quoted rock musicians claim that their music is drugs, immorality, and rebellion. Is it any wonder that most of the lyrics of secular rock deal with the same?

It seems to be ludicrous to think that the worst rock music would line up with anything that emulates Christian characteristics, but this is ultimately what you would have to believe when you accept the music neutrality line of reasoning. A common occurrence is that once you accept the mildest of Christian rock music, then a little heavier rock beat doesn’t seem so bad, and then an even heavier rock beat, and so forth. There is a “conditioning” to the beat that takes place. One becomes desensitized to the rock and a downward spiral begins.

On the Barbara Walters Special (aired 3/29/94), Cheetah, a rock magazine, was quoted as saying:

If people knew what today’s pop music was saying, not what the words are saying, but what the music itself is saying, they would ban it, smash all records, and arrest anyone who tried to play it.

With all this information, it stands to reason that music, apart from the words, cannot be neutral and must have moral connotations. As a Christian, I want to be very careful about the music I play or listen to, especially when it is a medium used to proclaim God’s Holy Word.

“I will sing of the mercies of the LORD for ever: with my mouth will I make known thy faithfulness to all generations.” Psalm 89:1       

December 13, 2011
Music Ministry
Christian Living, Music, Music Ministry

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Great article! Thank you for your study and intelligent perspective on this issue.