Are Music Choices Really Important?

Marvin Robertson


Call an airline office, enter a supermarket. Stop at a bank. Walk by a teenager's room. You can't escape it. From the soothing to the shattering, from rock to rap, from classical to popular, music is everywhere. It's almost omnipresent.

But do we have a choice? In this age of explosion in audio/visual technology, can we really choose the music to which we listen? Are there standards that we can apply to our appreciation of music? To our teaching of music? To our practice?

For centuries the debate about music has been on center stage. Musicians, philosophers, and theologians have grappled with questions regarding the effects of different musical styles on human emotions and behavior patterns. Religion has tried to carve a role for music in praise and worship. Educators have not been far behind in the debate.

The Bible traces music's vital role in the Jewish religion and culture as well as in the early Christian church. Observe the variety of music styles and usage found within the biblical tradition: The song of Moses affirms God's triumphal liberating act (Exodus 15). David used music as a therapy for Saul (1 Samuel 16:14-23). Ezra records the bringing of 200 men and women singers from Babylon to reestablish worship at the new temple in Jerusalem (Ezra2:65). The Psalms and the Song of Solomon in the sacred canon attest to the value of music in Old Testament times. The apostle Paul's instruction regarding singing shows the value the early church placed on music (1 Corinthians 14:15; Ephesians 5:19; Colossians 3:16).

Church history continues to record this tradition. Luther and Calvin had strong convictions on the role of music in congregational worship and in the lives of individual believers.1 From Luther we have received a rich heritage of church music, including the famous Reformation hymn, A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.

Music is not a concern of churches alone. It is also the concern of educators. Allan Bloom states,

Though students do not have books, they most emphatically do have music. Nothing is more singular about this generation than its addiction to music. This is the age of music and the states of soul that accompany it Today, a very large proportion of young people between the ages of ten and twenty live for music. It is their passion; nothing else excites them as it does; they cannot take seriously anything alien to music Nothing surrounding them - school, family, church - has anything, to do with their musical world.2

Further, English psychiatrist Anthony Stoff adds,

Music is so freely available today that we take it for granted and underestimate its power for good or ill.3

It is within this milieu that Seventh-day Adventists seek to establish a philosophy of music that strengthens the individual's relationship to Christ and the principles of His kingdom.

Ellen White wrote extensively about the power of song and music.4 Biblical principles together with her published views have provided a core in the development of an Adventist philosophy of music. Her statements on the subject may be summarized as follows:

*Music is a gift of God, designed to inspire and elevate the individual. This gift may be perverted to serve purposes of evil, and as such is a most alluring agency of temptation.

* Music helps in the memorization of God's Word, "There are few means more effective for fixing His words in the memory than repeating them in song."

*Music is "one of the most effective means of impressing the heart with spiritual truth."

*Music is a valuable educational tool in both home and school. Singing draws parents, teachers, and students closer to God and to one another.

*"As a part of religious service, singing is as much an act of worship as is prayer."

*Through music "Heaven's communion begins on earth. We learn here the keynote of its praise."

In 1981 the General Conference published Guidelines Toward a Seventh-day Adventist Philosophy of Music (Click here for copy of that document). The pamphlet, based on biblical teachings and statements from Ellen White, provides helpful suggestions on facing issues related to music that arise from time to time. Adventist periodicals continue to address these Questions as well.

 With those concepts as background, can we find concepts and ideas to help us deal with the ever-changing, challenging, and sometimes chaotic world of music? I think we can. My experience as a musician, educator, and minister of music has led me to develop the following framework of principles from which each individual may make intelligent choices.

1. Music must glorify God. Whatever music I choose to listen to or to perform, be it sacred or secular, must be to the glory of God. As a performer I must always strive to give my best. Inaccurate, unprepared performance does not honor God. As Mark Hatfield observes, "Christians who excuse their own mediocrity with pious rationalizations seem guilty of not understanding the extent of God's call on their lives."5

2. Music, per se, does not make one moral or immoral. That is not to say music does not affect morality! It simply means that musical style preference (classical, folk, gospel, pop, etc.) is not to be equated with one's relationship to God. Just because I prefer Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms does not make me a more moral person than my friend who prefers Steve Green or Sandi Patti. When dealing with aesthetics it might be well to reflect on what Harold Best has said:

The beauty of God is not aesthetic beauty but moral and ethical beauty. The beauty of the creation is not moral beauty; it is aesthetic beauty, artifactual beauty. Aesthetic beauty lies in the way and the quality with which something is made or said. Truth lies in what is said.6

3. Music must yield to the test of appropriateness. While a bathing suit is appropriate at the beach, it would not be so in the church. The same principle can be applied to music. Not all styles of music are appropriate for all occasions, and some styles may never be appropriate for the Christian. What maybe a perfectly legitimate, emotional love-song melody may not be suitable for a worship service. The context is different. Should music in worship focus one's attention to emotional pleasure rather than the praise of God? In our entertainment-driven world, we must be careful to distinguish between entertainment and worship. Worship is what we present to God; entertainment is "a performance or show designed to amuse or divert."7

4. Culture conditions appreciation of music. The norm for acceptable music varies from country to country and culture to culture. Adventists in each culture must study their own music and decide what does and does not express a positive Christian outlook.

5. All in the world of popular music is not conducive to Christian values. Today's musical taste-maker worldwide is not the home, church, or school but the commercial interests of radio, television, and film. "Rock music is as unquestioned and unproblematic as the air the students breathe, and very few have any acquaintance at all with classical music."8 The global rock-'n'-roll utopia Music TV tries to create is an apt illustration of the worldwide nature of the problem we face in confronting new trends in music.

James St. Lawrence and Doris Joyner recently reported on their research on "The Effects of . Sexuafly Violent Rock Music on Males'Acceptance of Violence Against Women." Describing the results of their study, they wrote:

The experimental manipulation involved exposure to sexually violent heavy-metal rock music, Christian heavy-metal rock music, or easy-listening classical music The results indicated that males with an extrinsic religious orientation [i.e. not motivated by inner conviction] were more accepting of sexist and rape supportive beliefs. Exposure to heavy-metal rock music, irrespective of lyrical content, increased males sex-role stereotyping and negative attitudes toward women.9

Jeffrey Arnett has found that, when compared with boys who do not like heavy metal music, boys who liked heavy metal demonstrated more "reckless behavior" relative to driving, sex, and drug use. They were also less satisfied with their family relationships. Girls who liked heavy metal music were more prone to shoplifting, vandalism, promiscuous sexual behavior, drug use, and lower self esteem than their counterparts who did not like heavy metal music.

6. Music may be used to control a person's emotions and actions without going through rational thought Processes. As Storr points out,

The power of music, especially when combined with other emotive events, can be terrifyingly impressive. At the Nuremberg rally of 1936, the thunderous cheers [sic] of the vast crowd eventually drowned the music of the massed bands which played Hitler in. But the bands were there long before Hitler appeared, preceding his rhetoric with their rhetoric, preparing the huge gathering for expectations, aiding and abetting Hitler's self-dramatization, making it credible that a petit bourgeois failure had turned himself into a Messiah... There can be no doubt that, by heightening crowd emotions and by ensuring that those emotions peak together rather than separately, music can powerfully contribute to the loss of critical judgement, the blind surrender to the feelings of the moment, which is so dangerously characteristic of crowd behaviour.11

7. It is legitimate for a Christians to perform and enjoy both sacred and secular music. As Christians, we must take care that the words and the music lift our spirits above the mundane cares of this life.12

8. Music is not a static art. The repertoire constantly expands and changes. Harold Best observes:

The church has for centuries waged one brush war after another over the question of whether or how art and music 'mean' - what it means to borrow styles, forms, process, tunes, techniques, textures, shapes, gestures, and instruments from secular sources At the time of the borrowing, the war rages quite bitterly and divisively. Then as time passes, the war dies down. The previously condemned becomes merely questionable, if not outrightly sacred.13

Are our value judgements really important in this area? Do our listening habits affect out lives? I believe the answer is a resounding "Yes!" Our choices have eternal consequences. They lead us either toward or away from a deeper relationship with Jesus Christ, our Lord and Saviour.


 Making Choices in Music

As Christians, we are continually confronted with value judgements regarding each musical composition we listen to or perform. The following questions can help us in making those decisions:

What is the message of the piece?

  1. What is its the emotional and behavioral impact?
  2. What is the cultural context?
  3. What is its aesthetic value?
  4. What is its appropriateness for worship
  5. What is its worship value?
  6. What is its entertainment value?
  7. What is its educational value?


From the Autumn 1994 issue of IAMA,s Notes and Volume 6, No. 1 issue of Dailogue



 1 Oliver Strunk, Source Readings in Music History, pp. 59-78; 341-362.

2 Allan BIoom, The Closing of the American Mind (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1987), p. 68.

3 Anthony Storr, Music and the Mind (New York:The Free Press, 1992), p. 45.

4 Ellen G. White, Education (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., [1903] 1952), pp. 167.

5 Mark 0. Hatfield, Conflict and Conscience (Waco, Texas: Word Books, 1971), p. 126.

6 Harold M. Best, Music Through the Eyes of Faith (San Francisco: Harper, 1993), pp. 43, 44.

7 The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 1969.

8 Bloom, p. 69.

9 Janet S. St. Lawrence and Doris J. Joyner, "The Effects of Sexually Violent Rock Music on Males' Acceptance of Violence Against Women," Psychology of Women Quarterly 15:1 (March 1991), p. 49.

10 Jeffrey Arnett, "Heavy Metal Music and Reckless Behavior Among Adolescents," Joumal of Youth and Adolescence 20:6 (December 1991), pp. 573-592.

11 Storr, p. 46.

12 For Ellen White's views on secular music, see Music - Its Role, Qualities, and Influence as Set Forth in the Writings of Ellen G. White (Washington, D.C.: Ellen G. White Estate, 1972).

13 Best, p. 41.