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What about Bad Music?

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Oct 09, 2009

It is a feature of human nature that all normal persons respond emotionally to music. For this reason, music is often described in emotional or quasi-emotional terms. It may be languorous or bombastic, martial or lyrical, peaceful or agitated, soothing or exciting, and so on. But in addition to the connection between music and human moods, music is also perceived as beautiful (or ugly) and the human intellect naturally wishes to understand those properties of music which, if properly manipulated, produce beauty. Finally, the essentially moral character of the human person leads us to ask whether music can affect either morals in particular or spirituality in general and, if so, how.

It is possible to draw from these considerations three questions of great interest to most serious Catholics in today’s culture: First, can different kinds of music in themselves be either morally good or evil? Second, is it possible for music to influence a person’s moral behavior? Third, are some forms of music more suitable than others to worship and especially to the Divine liturgy? Prescinding for the most part from the problem of what makes music beautiful or ugly, it is these three questions that I intend to address below.

Morally Good and Bad Music

One surveys the comments of ancient, medieval and modern philosophers in vain to find a consistent rational exposition of the nature of music or its potential moral effects. Different philosophers from Confucius to Nietzsche, including Plato, Aristotle, Boethius, St. Thomas Aquinas, Kant and many more, have made assertions about music, its essential character, and its impact on morals without the development of any single consistent rational line of argument that could be used to distinguish legitimate conclusions from mere opinions. This dearth has been alleviated to a modest degree by the aesthetic studies of neo-Thomist philosophers in the 20th century, including the work of Jacques Maritain, and by documents written to reach out to artists by Pope John Paul II. But we are a very long way from understanding—if we ever will understand—exactly what distinguishes music from noise, what makes music beautiful, and exactly why and how music reaches to the core of the human person.

Those who have been exposed to “arguments” on the subject of whether some music, or perhaps some rhythms, are intrinsically disordered and therefore morally evil, should have noticed that these “arguments” are always either mere assertions or they are supported only by appeal to some authority. When the authority in question is consulted, one always finds another mere assertion, without any sort of logical argument that may be tested by another. In reality, it is oxymoronic to describe either rhythm or music as “disordered”, for in fact it is precisely the ordering of sound in particular ways which creates both rhythm and music as a whole.

Therefore, even a cursory study of past serious thought about the nature of music forces one to conclude that it cannot be successfully argued that any form of music is evil in itself, but only that it sometimes appears to be evil in certain of its effects, which are always obscured in human responses conditioned by many things outside the music itself.

Music and Moral Behavior

A moment’s reflection will enable us to see that any particular type of music that we do not like, or to which we are personally opposed, can be used to produce an effective, pleasing artistic effect in some context of which we would approve. We may abhor the sound of “death metal”, for example, yet the same sound may be a stroke of artistic genius in a section of a modern opera which portrays a suicide. This leads to an extremely important point, which may be further illustrated by the use of music in film scores. For it is undeniable, as I noted in the introduction, that music stimulates emotional responses and can therefore influence our moods, and this reality is routinely exploited not only in “occasional music” such as that used on patriotic occasions, at sporting events or at dances, but in any form of art which employs music in the telling of a story. Moreover, music has been used in many periods of history to assist in the treatment of various human disorders, up to and including clinical trials in our own time. This may not get us very far in terms of aesthetic theory, but it does provide a universal human experience on which to base certain legitimate conclusions.

The first conclusion, from both our own experience, the widespread experience of others, and even various clinical trials, is that music tends to intensify human responses to other stimulants. Insofar as we are beginning to feel suspense at a certain point in a movie, the right kind of music heightens that feeling. Insofar as we are upset but have something within us which desires peace, tranquil music usually has a soothing effect. Insofar as we are attempting to stir ourselves up to an act of military valor, the right musical accompaniment can stimulate our courage and hasten us to action.

At the same time, however, the human person always retains the innate capacity—the power of will—to nullify these emotional effects of music. He may psychologically detach himself from the movie, if it is not to his taste or if he has pressing business, and so make himself effectively impervious to the normal effect of the music. Not wishing to be “tranquilized”, he might grow angry at a crude attempt to pacify him through musical sounds. Opposed to war, he may scoff at or condemn martial music without being stirred by it in the least. He may laugh at that which is palpably designed to make him cry, and cry when he hears happy music, perhaps because it reminds him of a lost love.

The second conclusion is that, just as well-chosen music tends to make us feel more deeply certain experiences to which we are otherwise disposed, so too is the emotional impact of music both altered and significantly intensified by association with things that are extrinsic to the actual musical forms. These may be associations which we already have in our own minds, or associations which we form when listening to music that includes lyrics, which possess something that pure music does not, namely the intelligibility unique to human speech.

Lyrics

The most obvious examples of these associations are found in the rise of many new musical forms in various cultures among musicians who are either rebelling against the mores of the culture or who are using particular forms of music to accompany immoral behavior. We could point to several examples quite easily: The rise of certain Greek forms in orgiastic rites, the emergence of jazz among musicians who typically played in bordellos, the development of hard rock and heavy metal in a counter-cultural movement too interested in tearing down conventions. Such music, which in itself might be said to produce effects of restless animation, romantic relaxation, or throbbing anger, has been used as an accompaniment either to immoral activities or to lyrics containing harmful messages, or both.

Those who care about the activities or the messages, finding them immoral or false, will naturally associate these musical forms with evil and so will often experience them as intrinsically evil. Clearly, in this moral context, moral listeners will scarcely perceive as neutral those emotional tendencies of the music which have made it appropriate to the lyrics or activities in question; rather, they are likely to react with disgust or anger. These associations and these lyrics are often very significant, and they are by no means to be lightly dismissed, especially in the formation of those who are young and impressionable. But the moral evil at work is not intrinsic to the music itself, as one final consideration will easily demonstrate.

With the passage of time, typically a generation or a little more, each new musical form tends to rise to general acceptability, in a particular context or usage, as the form is appropriated to other purposes and loses a large part of its original associations. It is too soon to see the end of this process in, say, hard rock or heavy metal, but it ought to be exceedingly clear in the case of jazz, which eventually worked its way into polite society, concert halls and university music programs, and which is considered a sort of gold standard today by a great many of those who cannot tolerate more recent musical forms. Yet in its origins, it was often regarded with horror.

There is another aspect of this progress of musical forms which also plays a critical role: familiarity. When we are used to particular forms and comfortable with them, we may find new forms distracting, jarring or otherwise annoying and unpleasant, and this certainly accounts for a large part of the immediate dislike of new music on the part of older people even as it is embraced with joy by those who are younger and more malleable. This alone is sufficient, even without various associations or problems with lyrics, to account for the common generation gaps in musical taste. But it also accounts for a very important phenomenon in the field of sacred music.

Sacred Music

If we conclude that music has no intrinsic moral quality, then we must ask a different sort of question when we consider which musical forms (or instruments, for that matter) are appropriate for divine worship. As you would expect, the evolution of the Church’s teaching on sacred music has been guided by the Church’s understanding of the Divine liturgy, in which the central and essential element (from the human point of view) is words. The Mass is a prayer of words, and insofar as music has been introduced into the public worship of the Church, its purpose has always been to give greater beauty and penetrating force to the words: the psalms, the readings, the prayers which accompany the actions of the Mass, and so on. This also has deep roots in worship under the Old Covenant.

There are two other significant considerations for Sacred Music as well. First, one must take account of the associations connected with various musical forms. It is at best pointless and at worst counter-productive to bring into Church for the purpose of worship those forms of music in any given culture which are associated primarily with frivolous or even immoral activities. This is simply a matter of common sense. Second, the Church considers the emotional tendencies of the various musical forms used in the liturgy. According to the rhythms of the liturgical year, the mood of the worshippers is appropriately glorious, joyful, martial, reflective, contrite, peaceful, sad, or even bereaved. The music should intensify rather than counteract these highly appropriate moods, which flow not only from the season and the occasion but from the liturgical texts themselves.

So Sacred Music must be conducive to the understanding of words (which suggests that interludes of “pure” music without lyrics should be rare or non-existent); the forms used should not have primarily secular associations of any kind; and the forms, settings, rhythms, and arrangements should be conducive to the emotions appropriate to the season, the feast and the texts. Now it so happens that Gregorian chant possesses an astonishing ability to intensify text (it is, after all, chant, not song); it is almost completely devoid of association with secular pursuits; and it tends to induce a strong emotional sense of the spiritual and the eternal even as it changes easily from sadness to joy. All these things have combined with the force and associations of the Catholic tradition to give Gregorian Chant a certain pride of place in the Church's liturgy. While too often ignored in practice, this position still obtains both in theory and in the Church's official recommendations today.

Perhaps more to the point in our discussion, there are several features of music (or instrumental accompaniment) which can interfere with worship precisely because they interfere with our focus on the words and their meaning. These features include novelty, complexity, and sheer distractive power. For this reason, in addition to the condemnation over the centuries by both saints and Church authorities of forms of music and particular instruments which were at any given time associated primarily with secular or immoral pursuits, there have been similar restrictions placed upon forms and instruments because the complexity of either the score or the sounds have made it more difficult to focus on the words, or because the very novelty of a particular form or instrument rendered it inevitably distracting.

Thus did a form now as revered as polyphony come under condemnation and severe restriction in the Church’s liturgy, when it was new, and thus has a strong distinction quite properly arisen between sacred music (music used for worship) and more broadly religious music. Indeed, some of the greatest religious compositions—one thinks of Bach or Beethoven—are not generally appropriate for worship. The music is so splendid, so powerful, so generally moving and perhaps even ecstatic that the listener may, through this medium, experience a significant deepening of religious devotion. But he will not thereby have entered more deeply into the Sacrifice of the Mass, unless the music has fulfilled the more modest office of helping to release within him a more deeply-felt understanding and appreciation of the meaning of the rite as conveyed through its words.

Appreciation

I am painfully aware that an essay such as this cries out for more examples, and for appropriate quotations from philosophers and saints, popes and councils. There is insufficient time and space to provide them here. Instead, it is best to offer a brief word of practical advice, a word about how we must prepare ourselves to assimilate the powerful experience of music through what is commonly called music appreciation.

By music appreciation I am not referring exclusively to the ability to discern the various elements which make up a musical composition, to trace their history, or to better understand the techniques and talents of either the composers or the musicians. These aspects should be cultivated whenever possible by frequent listening and by formal study, but they are not essential. Yet just as surely as everything we are given is to be used for the glory of God and our own union with Him, so too should every person strive for the same result in music. For most of us, and especially for youngsters who are very much in the process of moral, spiritual and indeed fully human formation, the essentials of music appreciation must not be ignored.

De gustibus non disputandum: There is no arguing about taste. But the essentials of music appreciation consist in five key elements which each person should learn to understand, and on which I intend to close:

  1. The emotional impact different kinds of music can have, along with the general characteristics that tend to produce various moods;
  2. The importance of lyrics as intelligible in a manner that pure music is not, and the ways in which their power is increased by music;
  3. The nature of the associations which attend upon various musical forms, especially contemporary forms, by virtue of their origins, the uses to which they are frequently put, or the attitudes and performance behaviors of the musicians;
  4. The nature of the liturgy and the reasons that some musical forms and instruments are more appropriate for liturgical use than others;
  5. The possibility and the importance of deliberately adjusting one’s own musical tastes through careful listening, through accurate discernment of the effects each kind of music has in one's own life, and through spiritual reflection.

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Show 5 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: happycatholicmom8648 - Oct. 19, 2009 10:45 AM ET USA

    My eleven year old son said of Chant, "I remember quite a bit of it." But then, we go to a Tridentine Rite High Mass every Sunday and I'm in the choir. Lots of beautiful chant and polyphany. It is amazing. I always wonder why, when we could have this sort of beautiful, reverent liturgy everywhere, we have what we do in the average American Catholic parish. It's really sad.

  • Posted by: lschwarzenberger6939 - Oct. 18, 2009 12:17 AM ET USA

    No offense, but this is sort of preaching to the choir. I just can't envision much change in our parish - the diocesan music workshops foster anything but what you recommend. And, I'm sure no priest would care to get into the fray. He's just happy he has someone doing the music.

  • Posted by: Patricia - Oct. 12, 2009 3:54 PM ET USA

    Why isn`t anything as grand as Chant being written in English today? How much does anyone under 50 remember of Chant? Has the Church sponsored modern music that brings the soul to a more devout level? Any Catholic Colleges awarding music scholarships for this purpose?

  • Posted by: shenanigans03650 - Oct. 09, 2009 7:46 PM ET USA

    You are such an intelligent person and wonderful writer. I cannot imagine how long it must have taken you to write this article, covering so much. I'm not sure if we're only supposed to use the word "encyclical" for papal writings, but you do a very good job of "writing around" the many new topics you cover constantly. I appreciate the fact that you're restructuring to work with the money you have to work with instead of going away - we need you, and you do what you do so well. Bless you all

  • Posted by: jeremiahjj - Oct. 09, 2009 7:37 PM ET USA

    There is an excellent little book on this subject called Sing to the Lord: Music in Divine Worship. It was developed by the Music Subcommittee of the Committee on Divine Worship of the USCCB. Approved for publication by the full body of bishops 11/07 and has been authorized for publication by Msgr. David J. Malloy, STD, Gen. Sec'y, USCCB. ISBN 978-1-60137-022-8. Details: Why we sing; The Church at Prayer; Music at Cath Worship; Preparing Music for Cath Worship; Musical Structure of Cath Worship.

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