Thursday, May 20, 2010

Can Music Be Evil?

Note: if you're viewing this as an email or in a feed reader, you'll probably have to view this in my actual blog to be able to play the embedded audio samples.  Sorry about that!

Music, like all forms of art, always carries an objective meaning, or message.  We discussed this in my first post a few days ago.

But I missed a potential objection that is worth answering.  Essentially, the argument goes like this: "Your examples included lyrics.  The message of the music derives from the message of the lyrics."  Even though I attempted to demonstrate that this was not the case (through the obvious ill-fit of swapping words between the two tunes), this does not fully answer this argument.  It could be thought that the reason we think of Onward Christian Soldier's tune as marching and militaristic is because of the words that we've learned to associate with it.  In other words, someone might say that if we were the first people to hear the tune after Arthur Sullivan composed it (before any words were ever sung to it), we would not naturally associate it with marching, armies, or any other particular mood or emotion.

This argument could be disproved in any number of interesting ways.  I would challenge anyone to try both Onward Christian Soldiers and Now the Day is Over on an infant and see which works best as a lullaby.  (The child is obviously too young to comprehend the meaning of the words, but if still you're concerned about that, you could always just hum.)

We could also turn to music that has no words, at least not to our knowledge.  Here's such a tune.  Tell me that this doesn't convey a generally happy, upbeat mood to you:

I can already hear someone objecting that the reason this sound makes us happy is not because of the melody itself but because of the food that is associated with this sound.  I would argue that there is a reason that this particular sound was used to sell this food.  It's not coincidence that the ice cream man doesn't use a police siren to attract business.  But then someone could say that there is nothing particularly alarming about the sound of the police siren either, it's only the emergencies that we have come to associate with the siren that causes it to be alarming... sigh.

For such an argument I have a possible answer: compare the mood of the following two sound clips.  Neither of them has words.  Neither is associated with any events (that I'm aware of).  These sounds are both short and relatively simple, so the emotions they evoke will not be strong.  But if lyricless music is by itself a meaningless combination of sound waves, either of these sounds should be equally attractive. But if music can have an inherent mood or emotion to it, then one of these sounds will be substantially more pleasant than the other. 

Not only does every piece of music carry an objective meaning, but the objective meaning it carries is initially the same for everyone.  We see this 'uniform perception of beauty' in other forms of aesthetics as well.  No one instinctively thinks a sunset is ugly, or that feces smell good.

Generally we all react to music the same way.  This is why movie producers can (and do) use music very effectively to aid the impact of their visual images.  If the "scary music" didn't give us all pounding hearts and widened eyes and sweating palms even before we see the villain produce a hidden revolver--if the scary music made some people relaxed, and yet others feel romantic--music would be useless in movies.  Producers of radio and television advertisements have also learned to use the universal meanings of music to produce the desired emotion in their potential buyers.

I ended my last post by asking how music can be evil, and I will end this post by answering.  We have the capabilities to feel not only legitimate and helpful emotions, but also unholy emotions.  Music can stir up either kind of emotion.  It can awaken awe and joy and worship, and it can also arouse lust and rage and rebellion.  We should aim to honor Jesus by feasting on songs that both arouse righteous affections in our hearts.

But, sometimes people react to the same piece of music differently!  If music has objective meaning, why don't we all have the same musical tastes?  That's the question I'll attempt to answer in my next post about music.  Keep your comments coming!


  1. Good post!

    However, I disagree with your description of music having objective meaning. I would submit it has subjective meaning and much of that is learned from culture. For instance, I play bagpipes. Wonderful instrument but very few people know of the classical music of the Great Highland Bagpipe called Piobareachd - pronounced 'peabrock'. The average piece is about 12-15 minutes and is built on a theme and variation, has no meter (beat) but has pulse. It is unlike anything in western music. Most people will dismiss it as noise or uninteresting. Yet for one that understands the music it can bring up all types of emotions. This is subjective and culturally taught.

    So is it the music itself that is either inherently good or evil? No, it is the understanding ascribed to it by the adherents that determine or define the reaction.

    Another case in point. If we were to listen to music from say Korea or China, we would find ourselves lost as to the meaning implied by it. But with study we could understand the performers intention.

    I grew up loving jazz and show tunes. Yet it took many years of infrequent exposure to classical music to adopt a wonderful appreciation for the genre. And I have a masters in music -- yeah fooled a lot of people.

    The point being, music in and of itself, cannot convey any type of meaning without the cultural context. When we add that variable we can then better understand the emotions that the composer or performer intends. Without that understanding it can be meaningless.

    Hence it is not the music itself that is either good or evil, but it is the attributes, culturally based that we ascribe to it that will make it so.

  2. I love this topic as it is a wonderful way to place forth a number of perspectives that we do not normally think about. The sound clips you posted are interesting but I think prove my point exactly.

    The first clip is pleasant sounding. Why? It harkens to audible sounds that a great many people in this country have heard from their youth. There is some basis for this in the type of scale used and it is predominantly a western scale. Long topic there -- but again that is a cultural derivative.

    The next two are nature sounds. The topic is music, but if we begin to add natural sounds we can easily transition into chance music and composers such as John Cage. But with respect to these two samples we are to think of the meadowlark as more pleasant than the crow. Ok, what if my fondest memories are of dove or quail hunting with my father around grain fields? Certainly crows are evident there as well. This could easily evoke a much more pleasant response from me. Hence the context or culture if you will, of the listener becomes all important in the interpretation of the sounds (music).

    You have said you are going to post on why people have different preferences for various genre. I look forward to that. That said, the topic is Can Music Be Evil? If we define evil as being those things that are opposed to God, then that implies that the "thing" must have the capability of sin or be in a state of disobedience to God. That implies that there is something innate within that is capable of that act of state. In and of itself music is neither. Standing alone it cannot be either good or evil, it simply is. Now what we make of the music, the response we have to it is another matter completely. And, again, that is a culturally learned context.

  3. Good point, BJ. Daniel, this is where your view begins to break's subjective. What can conjure up 'evil emotions' in you may not do that to me. That's why if I listen to grunge music, it may not conjure up rebellion or rage, whereas, if my brother/sister who grew up in the drug culture listening to that music when he/she got stoned (then they came to Christ), that music can bring back horrible memories for them. Therefore, they don't want to listen to that music type anymore.

    This is the point I have been trying to help you understand, Daniel. I don't believe it's an either/or issue but both/and. I do believe there is some music that is simply inappropriate (at least, for me). But BJ's point is well taken that culture and context has a lot to do with our those 'feelings' that music may (or may not) conjure up.

    jim m.