Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Is Music Sometimes Intrinsically "Evil"?



Richard Wagner (1813-1883)


Here are a few of my brief thoughts on this perennially fascinating question, from a good group discussion on the CHNI board.

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If the mere presence of a beat were a bad thing, I doubt that God would have encouraged cymbals and "loud" music in Scripture:
1 Chronicles 15:16,28 David also commanded the chiefs of the Levites to appoint their brethren as the singers who should play loudly on musical instruments, on harps and lyres and cymbals, to raise sounds of joy. . . . So all Israel brought up the ark of the covenant of the LORD with shouting, to the sound of the horn, trumpets, and cymbals, and made loud music on harps and lyres.

1 Chronicles 25:6 They were all under the direction of their father in the music in the house of the LORD with cymbals, harps, and lyres for the service of the house of God. Asaph, Jedu'thun, and Heman were under the order of the king.

2 Chronicles 5:13 and it was the duty of the trumpeters and singers to make themselves heard in unison in praise and thanksgiving to the LORD), and when the song was raised, with trumpets and cymbals and other musical instruments, in praise to the LORD, "For he is good, for his steadfast love endures for ever,"
There is also the "timbrel": a sort of tambourine, struck with the hand:
1 Samuel 18:6 As they were coming home, when David returned from slaying the Philistine, the women came out of all the cities of Israel, singing and dancing, to meet King Saul, with timbrels, with songs of joy, and with instruments of music.

Psalm 149:3 Let them praise his name with dancing, making melody to him with timbrel and lyre!

Psalm 150:4 Praise him with timbrel and dance; praise him with strings and pipe!
I haven't studied musical theory, but I have a massive background musically and even majored in it in high school. I play many instruments and am a music collector. I agree that music has effects. In fact, "program music" is designed precisely to evoke feelings in the hearers. Richard Wagner is my favorite composer. I love the music because it arouses in me very deep, "romantic" (in the larger, artistic sense of the word) associations and feelings. It has the power (for me, anyway) to do that. To tie types of music to specifically sinful effects, as the primary causal factor, however, is, I think, a very tricky business.

In my opinion, a lot of the statements made (often in fundamentalist or evangelical Protestant circles) about beats being evil and arousing lust or concupiscence, have more to do with unfortunate associations rather than intrinsic qualities of the music. If one were in an environment where a rock concert was invariably an opportunity to take drugs and begin immoral sexual escapades, then that music would have that association. If one already feels lust and sexual urge, then I suppose a certain beat could sort of tie into that. But it was already there. That's my point. The ultimate cause lies not in the beat but in the person. This is good Sermon on the Mount ethics.

In my own case, virtually all of the (rock) music I listened to growing up was in my own room. I wasn't bar-hopping or going to concerts to find sex and drugs (and I was quite lonely for some years, in any event, and so was a lot less "social"). It was strictly musical. The same applies today, when I listen to it at home, as a committed family man (who rarely goes out to party, etc., and if so, with my wife or family!), So in my mind a lot of the associations that others might have from "wild" backgrounds is not there at all.

A friend of mine once observed that he was more stumbled by Frank Sinatra-type lounge music than acid rock and suchlike (he being a guy who came of age in the 60s, so that the references are a bit dated), because for him that raised associations of the "tinkling glass" and so forth. It was entirely environment-based, rather than in the music itself.

I had the horrible experience at age 10 of seeing my puppy hit by a car (I'll never forget it). A certain song came on the radio that day, and for years it was associated in my mind with that horrific experience, but eventually it went away. Another was associated with a brutal dumping by a girlfriend that I went through. That association went away in time, too, and I happen to like both songs very much to this day.

On a semi-humorous note, I would contend that classical music is far more sensual than any rock music. Hence, all these collections of "Music for Lovers" and so forth (some of which I have in my collection). I'll take a pretty Schumann piano piece or Scheherazade or Beethoven's Moonlight sonata or a lovely Adagio movement of a symphony any day for romantic purposes (with my wife!) before any pop music that I can think of. I submit that most women would agree . . . though there are different sorts of amorous moods, to be sure.

In matters of sin, it always goes back to the person, and his situation and actions and will, and concupiscence. That is the primary location of the sinful impulse. Outside things can move those along. Our task is to know ourselves and not allow those things to develop and lead to sin. It's the Catholic life of proper self-examination and prudence.

My advice to anyone who is tempted to "get rid of" and condemn all kinds of music at one fell swoop, would be to deeply examine themselves to determine what is making them stumble. The music may not be the primary cause at all. Sometimes people get legalistic. I think it is excessive oftentimes even for the individual, but the real problems come when they try to apply it across the board to others. They assume that others are having the same reactions that they are having. Lyrical objections are very straightforward, but making an ironclad argument that some form of music is evil in and of itself is very tricky and difficult, I think.

It's known that music has physiological effects, just like chocolate, love, fear, and many other things. Of course, it still has to translate to specifically sexual impulses and in sinful scenarios (i.e., if Tchaikovsky or Chopin make me romantic towards my wife or vice versa, that is a good thing; especially as one approaches age 50, believe me!).

Protestant apologist Francis Schaeffer (a huge influence on me) argued that the "impressionistic" music of Debussy, in its radical chromaticism and chord changes (which arguably go back at least to Wagner's Tristan in 1859 if not Beethoven's late string quartets), reflected moral relativism. That's going a bit too far. It's true that our ears prefer harmony to dissonance, but even that is complex, because in the hands of a great composer, selective dissonance can be moving and beautiful, too (I think of, for example, one such dramatic dissonance in Beethoven's Third Symphony; I believe there are a few in the Ninth as well).

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