Is Music Amoral?

Posted by Wilcox on 1/13/2014 to Homeschooling

Recently, on a Sunday morning after church, as we were waiting for Dad (Kris) to come out of a “quick meeting” (which is an oxymoron, if there ever was one in a Baptist church), my college-age boys and I were having a conversation about music. This discussion was prompted by an earlier conversation we had with friends about Christian rap music. That whole rap conversation could probably be developed into an article of its own, but, in the end, our second son, Wes, proposed, “I think music is amoral.” Just as I was preparing to ask Wes how he came to that conclusion, Kris got out of his meeting, of course, so I had to place this debate on the back burner. Simmering thoughts are usually good for me—because they cause me to respond less emotionally, and more logically than I normally would. And simmering thoughts make me look for answers, not just accept traditions I’ve upheld for years.

Finally, after some more clarification from Wes of what he meant, and after letting the thoughts percolate in my head and heart for a few weeks, here are my conclusions about music’s morality:

  1. Musical notes and rhythms are amoral.
  2. Music is moral/immoral. It cannot be amoral.
  3. Lyrics are an element of music, so they are moral/immoral.
  4. We must be intentional in the music to which we listen.
The notes and rhythms of music that are used to make a composition or a song, are simply notes or rhythms. Do, re, mi, fa, so, la, ti, and beats in 4/4 or 3/4 time are not inherently ethical in some manner. There is no moral quality to those notes or beats. However, how those rhythms and notes are orchestrated together does have a moral quality. Notes and rhythms can be used to draw a listener into a certain emotional state, cause the hearer to worship, or incite the listener to act in a specific way. Furthermore, music must have a moral aspect because God is a moral Being, and He gave music to us. God created man to be musical (Gen. 1:21), and He expects us to use music to worship Him (Ps. 150; Eph. 5:19). While my son Westley would go on to argue that music (notes and rhythms in a composed order) is amoral if no one is able to hear it being played, I would purport that music is moral at all times because of Who gave it to us—the God of music (Zeph. 3:17).

Perhaps even more so, the lyrics of songs directly express the moral mindset of the composer. The words of a song verbalize the love, anger, compassion, awe, angst, weariness, loneliness, and any other emotion that the lyricist wishes to express. Those emotions are present, regardless of the musical notes or rhythms that accompany the words. Therefore, lyrics can be crude and lewd (immoral) or uplifting and righteous (moral) depending on their order and purpose.

Consider another of the fine arts to illustrate this concept of morality in the arts: painting. Paint in and of itself is amoral. Colorful pigments mixed together have no moral quality. But how those paints are organized on the canvas leads to an image that is either immoral or moral in nature. The pigments can be composed into a lovely landscape or still-life, or they can be combined to form a sensuous nude or confusing abstract. The moral quality comes from the composition, not the individual elements of the painting. And the moral quality of that painting exists within the work, whether a spectator views it or not.

Music cannot be amoral, and because of its influence on the listener’s heart, each individual must be selective and intentional in his musical choices. A person’s playlist demonstrates his moral state, his heart’s desires, and his moral tastes. Yes, that’s a pretty strong statement. But music is a powerful resource that can be used for God’s glory and man’s edification, or for the devil’s purposes and man’s ruin. Whether it be classical works by George F. Handel, Christian rap by LeCrae, love songs by Taylor Swift, hymns by Fanny Crosby, or punk rock by The Delinquents—music’s moral impact is determined by each of our musical choices. Music is not amoral. Music is moral. In light of the One who gave us music, please choose your playlist wisely.



Vincent J. Eagan, III
Date: 1/20/2014
First let me say, I am shocked that your boys are college age now. I feel old. I certainly agree with your premise that lyrics can be moral or immoral and that we must be intentional in the music we listen to. I would put a slight turn in the first one, and say that because lyrics are an element of music, THAT is what makes music moral or immoral. On the composition of the notes and rhythm, however, I do not think that without the lyrics, we can be moved in any certain direction. There are many church hymns - considered old now - that come to us from the Shakers. They were for a hundred years in some denominations considered to be very worshipful music. However, the truth of the matter is the original tune happened to be a saloon song. The Shakers took those songs since they were simple melody ... easy for all to learn and remember ... and put new words to them. In this case, and I believe in all others, it is the lyrical content that pegs a song as moral or immoral. Last let me say, it is nice to read something written by you.
Carrie Davis
Date: 1/20/2014
I loved reading this! Nicely written and so true. Thank you for sharing.
Marvin Petros
Date: 3/2/2014
I'm actually doing a research on that topic and came across this page. I'm glad you came to this conclusion because it seems that Christian tends to think that instrumental music is amoral and that's a far from the truth. Here's an except from a site that I found:" "It's really a powerful drug. Music can POISON you, lift your spirits, or MAKE YOU SICK without knowing why." (Family Weekly Magazine, January 30, 1983, p. 12, article by David Chagall) Rock music can literally kill. So I totally agree with you. Choose carefully what you listen to.
Mark Brenner
Date: 3/24/2014
Thank you for taking the time to write on this question. If the conclusions you arrived at are true then there is a whole generation and more that are missing valuable information. Science, logic, and the evidence point to your conclusion being valid. I teach a college course that deals with this question and get to talk with new students every year who hold to some form of the view that music is morally neutral. After taking the course though, there are few students if any that will continue to hold the view that music is morally neutral. It is an impossible position to defend against the evidence. Often the defense compares music to the letters of the alphabet. It is said that just as letters are neutral, music too is neutral. That it takes the right or wrong intentions of a person to use either for good or bad. This is a bad analogy for the reasons you point out. Letters are neutral because they are the ingredients that make up words. Notes are neutral because they make up music. But words and music both have morality as they carry a message. There is one area of disagreement with your analysis. In the same way notes make up music, accented beats and non accented beats make up rhythms. Rhythms can stand alone in music and move the body accordingly without the need for melodies. (Rap for example) Rhythms carry a moral message too as there are some rhythms that are sensual or sexual. Rhythms can sooth you, make you dance,march, tap your feet and fingers, and move your body in a variety of specific ways, depending on the specific rhythm. Dance is the body's interpretation of rhythm. If there is such a thing as sensual dance then there are corresponding sensual rhythms. This has been a widely and universally accepted truth among all serious music professionals throughout history and different cultures. Music reviews often use phraseology like, "sensual rhythms, sexual rhythms, etc.", when describing certain types of music. I have been collecting quotes from music experts, authors, and philosophers, for years and will leave you one to close this post. Thanks again for the thoughtful post. “Music is the most powerful stimulus known among the perceptive senses. 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.” - Dr. Max Schoen, The Psychology of Music: The Influence of Music on Behavior, p. 166.
Date: 5/19/2015
Mark, I think the easiest way to paraphrase what you've said about music is this: Music is a language. Languages convey messages. Just as a spoken sentence conveys a meaning, a musical piece conveys a meaning. I believe this little paragraph is true to what you've said and more eloquently and simply explains exactly how music works. If this is the case, you've come to a very good conclusion and I can wholeheartedly agree with you here. I do however have some following disagreements. For one, I'm not entirely certain music can convey a moral meaning. Music is far more abstract and far less literal than spoken languages and so I'm not certain as of yet that a musical piece can convey something directly moral or immoral. Music tends to convey emotions, and occasionally vague themes, but emotions do not have an innate moral value. Emotions can affect our behavior causing us to commit moral actions, but the emotion itself is neutral. The Israelites in the desert often groaned against God and Moses and were cranky quite a bit. We understand that this crankiness was not good or appropriate. I'd contend though that is wasn't the crankiness that was bad, but their own actions of which crankiness was merely a byproduct. This is false: 1. The Israelites were cranky, 2. God was upset with their crankiness. This is true: 1. The Israelites didn't trust God to provide food for them, and they didn't appreciate his provision. 2. These two actions along with their hunger resulted in crankiness. 3. God was upset with the two wrong actions, and was upset with inappropriate crankiness which stemmed from their actions. He was not upset with the crankiness itself. I contend that upon analysis we will find no instance where an emotion is ever wrong in the bible, and that an emotion is only inappropriate when it is the byproduct of inappropriate actions. If I am correct about this stuff, then emotions conveyed by a piece of music can not give the song moral or immoral value. What concerns me is the themes which can be conveyed by music because music can also convey certain abstract themes. It can communicate themes such as triumph, strength, etc. and this leaves me uncertain of whether or not there is potential for music to communicate a sinful theme but this is incredibly confusing being that themes in music are far more abstract than the already abstract emotions in music. I do still heavily lean towards music being ammoral, I will need to study and meditate some more on it.

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