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The Right Kind of Music: Is Music Moral?

The Right Kind of Music: Is Music Moral?

This post is about my research on fundamentalist Christian music. Read more about it here

Is music moral?

Fundamentalist Christians think so.

“Music is moral” is the first premise of their philosophy of music—the argument upon which the rest of their views depend.

But this argument itself relies on a syllogism: music influences listeners, and this influence is either good or bad. Therefore, music is itself good or bad depending on its influence.

So, how do fundamentalists support those arguments?

To be clear, this is music itself that’s under discussion and not, say, music with lyrics or performances of music. Lyrics and performances do affect music’s moral state according to fundamentalists, but their presence is not necessary to judge a piece.

Music influences listeners

Music influences listeners because it conveys emotions. There’s happy music, sad music—and those emotions end up influencing how listeners feel and what they do.

Music’s influence on listeners can also be observed through commercial and therapeutic uses like movie soundtracks, background music in stores and restaurants, and the allied health field of music therapy. 

(Some fundamentalist sources reference studies done in the 1960s and 1970s that seemed to prove that garden plants flourished with a constant serenade of classical music, but withered with a background of rock music. [Yes, Mythbusters tested this out.] However, few recent sources use this kind of evidence to bolster claims about music’s effects on listeners.)

Music’s influence is either good or bad

These emotions are themselves good or bad, therefore what is conveyed to listeners is also good or bad. 

This argument that “emotions are themselves good or bad” depends on the black and white moral system that fundamentalists use. In this system, something—anything—is either good or bad. Period. (Not gray, not neutral, not something else entirely.)  There’s a lot more that can be said about how binaristic morality influences how fundamentalists think about music, but that’s a topic for another post/article/book.

This depends on context, right?

No. 

Fundamentalists also argue that: 1. emotions are universal, 2. universal emotions are intrinsically moral, and 3. music conveys these universal emotions universally. This is not dependent on culture or specific situations.

Music that is intrinsically bad (because of the intrinsic emotion(s) it conveys) is always intrinsically bad. It can’t be bad in one place and good in another.

There is, however, some wiggle-room here for what many fundamentalists call “appropriateness” (i.e. suitability for the occasion). For example, what is appropriate for a church service in China would not necessarily be appropriate for a church service in Germany, even though the music in question will always be good or bad regardless of culture or specific situation. 

Read more to tell the difference between good and bad music and why it even matters.

The Right Kind of Music: The Difference Between Good and Bad Music

The Right Kind of Music: The Difference Between Good and Bad Music

National Congregations Study: Choirs and the Power of Small Groups

National Congregations Study: Choirs and the Power of Small Groups