Engaging the culture with the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Music, Morality, and Mistaken Premises

My desire is to be thoroughly “Sola Scriptura” in all I do, as I hope
is evident quickly as you read through this. Although I am going to
begin with a premise given to me many times over by those who condemn
contemporary music. I address this mistaken illustration initially
because anything can be proven from a false premise.
The illustration often used to prove the morality of music goes
something like this:
If I write a letter, then that letter has no moral quality. It is
neither good nor bad as it stands alone, but when I put letters
together to form words it then has value as it communicates something.
Color is the same way. Red is neither good or bad, but can be used to
paint pictures that have moral value.

The illustration then says music is the same. A single note is amoral,
but string that not along with other notes and it begins to
communicate, and once communication occurs the it is either good or
bad.

The problem with this illustration is that it is not founded upon an
accurate understanding of any of the forms of communication it uses in
the illustration. It is true that all three forms of communication are
moral, and it is true that a single letter, color, or note does not
have moral value. It is also true that once communication occurs it
carries a moral message. It fails to realize that all three of these
are not just communication forms but art forms as well. This
illustration, in not allowing for variation of style, subtly
encourages one to subjectively place the moral value completely upon
the style instead of the what is being communicated. Let me show you
what I mean by recasting the illustration in a more accurate light:

If I write a letter, that letter has no moral quality, but letters
combined make words. Even still, these words do not have a moral
quality unless they are combined to communicate ideas. It is the
sentence that communicates. I can use the word “God” positively or
negatively. It is not just the word, but the context in which it’s
used. Then there is style. One can employ prose (and in various forms)
essay, etc. Various styles will better carry the message. Even
Scripture employs different writing styles throughout, which will
determine how the words employed are interpreted.
A color, standing alone, is neither good or bad. But when employed to
paint a picture, that picture takes on a moral quality. But this
picture can be painted in the style of Monet, Rembrandt, Picasso, or a
myriad of others.
Now let’s move to music. A stand alone note is not good or bad, but to
string them together in a melody begins to communicate. But I can take
the melody to “Twinkle, Twinkle” (a Mozart melody) and play that in
various styles.
All factors combine to make a whole, not just the stringing together
of letters to make words, colors to make pictures, or notes to make
melodies; but one must also account for style in the evaluation of
music. Monet was an impressionistic painter, his lines were not as
much defined as Rembrandt’s’ seemingly exasperatingly detailed
portraits, but both have beauty and both can be used to draw
positively and negatively moral things. But style in art enables us to
say things through the combination of all those elements in powerful
ways we otherwise would not be able to say.

Just as there are some forms of art that are truly not art but the
equivalent of setting of a bomb in a paint shop, so every style of
music is not acceptable – but then again it would be agreed that both
in artistry and music those unacceptable styles have no symmetry or
beauty to them but are products of chaos. We must be careful not to
impose our musical preferences as the determining factor of what is
good and what is not.

So, a quick recap before we move on:
1.Music is not just a language, but an art.
2.Art have varying styles in which it communicates
3.The same style can be used for good or evil
4.There are some exceptions to the rule above, but those exceptions
are few (styles rooted in chaos)
5.We must not elevate our preferences as the determiner of good and pad style.

Does this sound complex? If so then you’re beginning to see that the
reductionism taken by those who want to simply dismiss contemporary
music out of hand has skirted the issues. This reductionism fits quite
well when trying to make areas black and white that Scripture doesn’t
address in those terms.

(to be continued…)

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One response

  1. Have you read Chapter 10, “Music And Morality” by Catholic educator Dr. William Kilpatrick within his book, “Why Johnny Can’t Tell Right From Wrong”?

    catholiceducation.org/articles/arts/al0073.html

    Every Christian needs to read it, every parent needs to read it, and every educator needs to read it.

    If I may include the final quote: “In summary, music has powers that go far beyond entertainment. It can play a positive role in moral development by creating sensual attractions to goodness, or it can play a destructive role by setting children on a temperamental path that leads away from virtue. Other cultures have found ways of helping the temperamental self keep time with the social self — that is, with the self that must live responsibly with others. That synchrony no longer exists in our society. Until it is restored, the prospects for a moral renewal are dim.”

    Dr. Kilpatrick cannot and should not be called reductionist.

    March 18, 2010 at 12:01 pm

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