In the previous article we began to explore the question of whether or not “the lovely” and “the admirable,” as mentioned in Philippians 4:8, have a moral dimension? Simply put: Is music morally neutral or is it subject to moral evaluation? Is it an issue of right and wrong, and ethical congruity with certain principles or merely a matter of subjective taste? We noted that there is fascinating historial evidence of the moral evaluation of music in a variety of cultures. Whether or not all their reasoning is valid from a Christian perspective, does not detract from the fact that music was historically considered to be part of a moral understanding of life. We also noted that the Western Christian tendency to evaluate music aesthetically rather than morally derives from an Anglo-Roman Catholic theological perspective developed in the Middle Ages. It centres around the understanding of whether or not humanity’s fall into sin affected our creativity. Christians of a Protestant heritage have no option but to explore ways of evaluating music for moral compatability with the worldview we espouse. The next two articles will suggest two starting points in that endeavour.
Speaking at the Second International Symposium on Music in Medicine
at Ludenscheid, West Germany, in 1984, Manfred
Clynes (a neurophysiologist, researcher, inventor, and acclaimed pianist) made the following
Music in fact is an organisation created to dictate feelings to the listener. The
composer is an unrelenting dictator and we choose to subject ourselves to him,
when we listen to his music.1
What does this prominent scientist mean when he says music “dictates feelings?”
How can music do this? One simple way to understand how this happens is to tune into
a movie soundtrack, bypassing the picture for a while. How much can you determine
about the film’s action simply by listening to the background music? Often quite a lot!
Imagine a scene in a sci-fi horror movie in which a lethal monster spider is creeping
up on an innocent, unsuspecting child. You can almost “hear” the creepy background
music, can’t you? But, it is right here that we need to stop and ask a question: Why do
film producers use music to accompany such scenes, especially when some would
have us believe that words, not music, actually communicate meaning? And how do
producers decide what music to dub with the scene? Why isn’t “approaching monster
music” dubbed onto a movie scene of a birthday party or a baby nursery? If lyrics such
as “sleep baby sleep” were set to “approaching monster music” would it become a
lullaby? Or would addition of the text “Jesus loves me this I know” render it suitable for
a worship context? In this last example, would we only want to make sure that the “approaching
monster music” was composed creatively and performed skilfully, or would
we evaluate the music as intrinsically inappropriate, even wrong, in that context?
While this may be an obvious example, several salient
points about the nature of music are highlighted here and they
must not be lost to our discussion. First, music apart from
lyrics does carry a message. Music is not a neutral medium.
Words are not required in order for music to have meaning.
Film producers make decisions about music, not lyrics, in
background music applications.
Second, while some may argue that music means different
things to different people and that its affect is really only a
matter of conditioned response, this does not account for the
validity of certain major assumptions made by film producers.
For example, incorporating music on a film soundtrack
takes for granted that music impacts all people similarly. Indeed,
if this were not the case a music soundtrack would be
pointless. Even when a film is released internationally only
language tracks are changed. The musical sound track that
“dictates the feelings,” as Clynes put it, stays the same. The
underlying belief is that background music will communicate
the same basic message to all viewers, even across cultural
Third, while it cannot be denied that with the rise of globalized
mass media some mass conditioning regarding musical
associations may have occurred, it is also clear that music’s
impact is not only a matter of conditioning. Even before mass
conditioning could be said to be a factor, producers seemed
to be able to predict very accurately what music fitted with
specific scenes or sequences. It has never been a hit-andmiss
venture. Composers intentionally write specific scores
for specific movies to achieve specific emotional responses.
Research over the last fifty years or so has verified that
the way music is constructed and performed embodies certain
inherent characteristics that have long provided intuitive
clues to its meaning. That’s precisely why the secular industry
makes informed decisions about the music it uses quite
apart from lyrics that may or may not be present. Sadly, the
“children of this world” seem to be wiser than the “children of
in some of these things.
In the relatively recently established discipline of Sentics
there is one example of how a growing body of documentary
evidence is deciphering how human emotion is expressed
and perceived, and how music is, in fact, a form of emotion
communication. Indeed, respected contemporary thinkers
about music have continued to affirm the conclusions of the
Greeks about music representing the passions or states of
the soul. For example, Susanne Langer wrote:
The tonal structures we call ‘music’ bear a close logical
similarity to the forms of human feeling. . . . The
pattern of music is that . . . form worked out in pure,
measured sound and silence. Music is a tonal analogue
of emotive life.3
In similar vein, Gordon Epperson maintained: “Music is
the expression . . . of the emotions; an aural image of how
feelings feel, how they operate.”4
In the development of Sentics, Clynes has merely begun
to show how music does this. Having demonstrated that
the expression of emotion occurs through certain predictable
forms (which he termed essentic forms5
), Clynes has
gone on to show how musicians can manipulate the pitch
and loudness of individual tones to embody essentic forms
in a melody line. This is achieved much the same way tone
of voice is modulated to make a sentence meaningful. He
describes it thus:
In producing a melody, a composer places the notes
so that they in effect fit the outline of the appropriate
essentic form. . . . Musical tones are placed at suitable
points along the path of an essentic form so that
internally they can act as markers in the generation of
the form. That is to say, the musical tones engender
internally the motor pattern of essentic form corresponding
also to program points of a touch expression
of the same quality.6
When composers construct well and performers read
and enflesh their compositions accurately, powerful communications
can take place. Indeed, when an essentic form is
expressed well “a melody has direct access to engender the
emotional quality in the listener without the need of auxiliary
As Clynes elaborated:
. . . it can touch the heart as directly as can a physical
touch. A caress or an exclamation of joy in music
needs not to be consciously translated into a touch
caress or a physical ‘jump for joy’ to be perceived as
of such a quality. It does so directly through perception
of essentic form.8
Besides using the tones of a melody line, further embodiment
of emotional communication can be demonstrated in
the structure of the rhythmic pulse.9
Of course, all this brings Maurice Zam’s illustration, quoted in the introduction to Part 2 of this series of articles, into perspective. Actually, I am sure Zam was aware that the tones E, D and C never exist in clinical isolation in a piece of music. The surrounding harmonies, rhythms, phrasing, accentuation etc. make those three tones take on a variety of emotional colourations. Any composer setting Zam’s three sets of lyrics (“I love you” “I hate you,” and “three blind mice”) to music would not compose identically in each case.10 This is precisely where Zam’s “throw away line” and logic breaks down.
Without trying to be comprehensive at this point, enough
has been provided to substantiate that a body of research
now exists that demonstrates that music does communicate
meaningfully in a way that can and ought to be evaluated for
appropriateness, and even rightness or wrongness in a given
From a Christian viewpoint, emotions like anger, hate,
fear, love, or joy are not intrinsically good or bad. However,
to present the lyric, “Jesus loves me this I know” with an accompanying musical/emotional message of fear and suspense
would not simply be a harmless mismatch of cognitive
and affective communication. According to Christian belief it
would surely be crass misrepresentation of the Gospel (especially
in light of 1 John 4:18) and hence, morally wrong, not
merely aesthetically poor. The same would be true if lyrics
about Jesus’ love for humanity were presented accompanied
by music portraying anger, violence, and aggression. Such
mixed messages provide a confused communication of truth
that is morally reprehensible, not just a matter of taste.
This last scenerio is not merely an idle, hypothetical example.
Even in the late 1980s and 1990s, an extension of socalled
heavy-metal rock music emerged and became known
as Thrash or Speed Metal. The violence and aggression in the
music was suitably acted out in the accompanying moshing
pit where fans gyrated to the music in frenzied thrashing
movements, sometimes even breaking limbs in the process.
This type of music continued to be popular and was much in
evidence at the 1999 Woodstock Music Festival. In an essay
in Time, August 9, 1999, Lance Morrow described the arson,
pillaging, and free-lance mayhem that “was much in the spirit
of the music” at the festival.11 A crowd the size of Rochester,
NY in hot conditions and under the influence of drugs and
“vehemently moronic music” became a riot. He summed it
up in the words: “Garbage in, garbage out.”12
When this form of music first emerged, however, some
Christian churches in Los Angeles sponsored concerts and
developed worship services around a “Christian form” of this
music to cater for enthusiasts. Even Contemporary Christian
Music magazine was in two minds whether to support or condemn
this new phenomenon.13 While the older, maturer commentators
tried to weigh up the pros and cons of violence in a
Christian context, arguing about the end perhaps justifying the
means etc., a letter from a young person to the editor of the
April 1989 issue of the same magazine seemed to cut through
the confusion. Alisa Williams from Chicago wrote:
What’s with this “Moshing for the Master” crap?!
[Feb. ‘89] Some of those thrash people have their
heads screwed up. I see absolutely nothing Christian
about diving into an audience on top of people or running
around like maniacs, risking being trampled to
death! This kind of violence has no place in a Christian
concert. No violence at all should be involved!
Now as for their “thrash” sound—it’s a bit too
wild. I know we all have different musical tastes, but
once you over step a certain point it’s just unbearable.
I know you mean well—You want to bring those
headbanging unbelievers to Christ—but I think you’ve
taken it a bit far. God bless you anyway!
By the way, this letter is not from an old granny.
I’m 15 years-old!14
What this young person saw so clearly highlights the
hypocracy of allowing the popular market to dictate music choice. Despite the recognized meaning of this music, some
considered it acceptable simply because it was popular. If
we have no external moral yardstick by which to evaluate our
music, the market forces of the secular music industry will
become the moral rudder by default. Ironically, within a Christian
music context, this means that you end up with those
knowing least about the Gospel determining most about its
expression. No wonder we are often left with a plethora of
mixed and confused musical messages in much of the contemporary
Christian music scene today. As Seventh-day Adventist
Christians we need to decide whether or not that is an
appropriate fountain of inspiration for our musicians and our
personal tastes to draw from and acclimatise to. Of course,
that is in itself, a moral choice we each have to make.
1 Manfred Clynes, “On Music and Healing” in Music in Medicine: Proceedings Second International Symposium on Music in Medicine, Ludenscheid, West Germany, ed. J. Steffens (R. Spintge and R. Droh, 1985), 4.
2 Luke 16:8
3 Susanne K. Langer, Feeling and Form: A Theory of Art (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1953), 27.
4 Gordon Epperson, The Musical Symbol: An Exploration in Aesthetics (New York: Da Capo Press, 1990), 75.
5 Manfred Clynes, Sentics: The Touch of the Emotions (New York: Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1978), 26-41.
6 Manfred Clynes, “When Time is Music,” in Rhythm in Psychological, Linguistic and Musical Processes ed. James R. Evans and Manfred Clynes (Springfield, Ill.: Charles C. Thomas, 1986), 184-5.
7 Ibid, 185.
8 Ibid. It is unfortunate that in an article of this nature that all this cannot be practically illustrated. When presented in seminar form with musical examples it proves very persuasive.
9 See, for example, Manfred Clynes, Expressive Microstructure in Music, Linked to Living Qualities in Studies of Music Performance ed. Johan Sundberg (Royal Swedish Academy of Music, Stockholm, No. 39, 1983), 120-122.
10 Perhaps a comparison could be drawn with the use of the word “no” said in different settings. (For example, in anger, in disbelief, in fear, and in defiance.) Although the same word is used, the colorations of the voice communicate the very diverse meanings and emotions.
11 Lance Morrow, “The Madness of Crowds,” Time (August 9, 1999), 64.
13 See Doug van Pelt, “Moshing for the Master?” Contemporary Christian Music (February 1989), 20, 21.
14 Contemporary Christian Music, (April 1989), 4.
Wolfgang Stefani, Ph.D., is a pastor in the Park Ridge and Flagstone
Seventh-day Adventist Churches in the South Queensland Conference
of Seventh-day Adventists, Australia.