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The Right Kind of Music: Good Music Is (Probably) Not What You Prefer

The Right Kind of Music: Good Music Is (Probably) Not What You Prefer

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

You know what good music is? 
The kind I like.

That’s one way we use “good” to talk about music. 

“Good” can also mean the best in its genre, in its style. So, Beethoven’s sonatas are good music, but that sonata I wrote in high school, not so much. 

Still, the so-called best of a genre or style or artist? Couldn’t that also be about preference? I can give you dozens of reasons why Beethoven’s sonatas are good examples of the genre, but don’t let that fool you into thinking I’m an impartial listener and that the accumulated preferences of the centuries aren’t a major factor in this evaluation.

And how about music that’s so terrible it’s good? Isn’t that kind of junky goodness also in the ear of the listener? (Personally, I love Train’s wacky lyrics—who even writes a break-up song that mentions a “crappy purple Scion,” much less rhymes it with “eaten by a lion”?? That’s definitely in the so-bad-it’s-good category for me. Because: preference.)

All these examples hinge on “good” being a mutable quality.

But for fundamentalist Christians, that’s not what “good music” means. Music isn’t “good” because you like it. Music is “good” because it’s morally right. This moral rightness is inherent in the music itself, and that quality doesn’t change depending on your associations or preferences.

So where does preference come into the picture? Can fundamentalists have favorite music? 

Yes, but with a huge caveat: preference only matters once all the bad music has been eliminated from the options.

In other words, when deciding what to listen to, the first question isn’t “What do I feel like listening to?” but rather, “Is this music morally right?” Then, once you’ve made that judgment, you can choose from amongst any of the good music that remains.* That choice might rely exclusively on your preference, such as when choosing background music to dinner. Or if you’re selecting, say, the line-up for a school concert, your choice might also be influenced by factors like the capabilities of your students and whether the music is seasonally appropriate. 

*I’m not saying this is a mental conversation a fundamentalist listener has every time they open up their music library: if you’re concerned with listening to morally right music, then you’ve probably already weeded out the bad music. You’ve already made the judgement in the past and only have to consciously exercise your judgment when encountering a new kind of music or a new “questionable” piece that seems to fall in a gray area between clearly good and clearly bad. 

Imagine a kid with health conscious parents—or really, just any kid young enough to have minimal say in what’s for dinner. The kid still has favorite foods, but only from amongst the relatively limited selection the parents allow.

Similarly, a fundamentalist likely has favorite music—but it’s drawn from a very small slice of the music most 21st century Americans can access.

Having a relatively limited range of music to choose from doesn’t mean that fundamentalists don’t use preference to make choices about the music they listen to and perform. In cities where there are multiple fundamental churches that a person might consider attending, music can even play a major part in their choice. Maybe they want to join a choir or orchestra and one church has those options but another doesn’t. Or maybe they love learning new songs and one church uses more recently-composed music than another one does. Everything else being equal, these are perfectly valid expressions of preference for fundamentalists.

Finally, the big question:
But what if I don’t like the good music? 
What if I basically hate Western art music and all that ilk? 
What if I think hymns are boring? 

Fundamentalists have two main things to say to this question: 

First, moral rightness outweighs any claims preference has. In other words, if listening to what you prefer means that you’re sinning, then obviously you shouldn’t be listening to it.

Second, preferences can be trained. To go back to the food metaphors—fundamentalist authors sometimes suggest a musical “fast” or “diet” in which you, to the best of your ability, set aside your preferences and listen only to morally right music for a predetermined length of time. The promise is that you will begin to retrain your preferences, and, if you stick with it, you will eventually come to truly prefer good kinds of music over bad ones. 

This is similar to the promise of whole foods diets: cut out the sugar, start eating veggies/legumes/allthegoodstuff, and eventually your tastebuds are like kale! my favorite! and twinkiesewwwgross! 

So is the effort worth is? Is it important to not only stop listening to bad music, but also to actually listen to good music? Yes, if you believe that listening to good music can spiritually benefit you.

Curious about fundamentalism and music? Check out this introduction and the FAQs.

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