Making sense of music

For most people – even most Christians – entertainment choices revolve around the simple question, “What do I like?” And when they’ve found what they like, unless there are glaring moral issues with it, they simply follow it without question.

But as Christians, we must keep “What do I like?” as a strictly secondary question. The far more important question is, “What glorifies God?” And the answer to that question is, whatever is in keeping with Christian principles and values glorifies God. In fact, Romans 12:2 tells us that the way to find God’s will is to find what is “good, acceptable and perfect.”

That’s not to say that all entertainment must be directly Christian or spiritual, but it must be consistent with the principles of the Christian life. One of those principles is self-denial, the willingness to deprive ourselves of anything inconsistent with God’s call on our life – and that’s why we must keep “What do I like?” as strictly secondary.

Some claim that entertainment choices can be divided into three categories: positive, neutral and negative. But nothing that has a moral aspect is truly neutral – and entertainment certainly has a moral aspect. Our entertainment choices affect us deeply. There are only two categories for moral issues – positive and negative. Positive entertainment promotes Christian values, either directly or indirectly. Negative entertainment contradicts Christian values. And in our entertainment choices as in all else, Philippians 4:8 calls to focus on that which is “true… honorable… just… pure… lovely [and] commendable.”

But this generalization is far short of a clear, black-and-white demarcation of right and wrong, and where we draw the lines for these categories will vary from family to family and individual to individual. And perhaps music is one of the most difficult areas to distinguish the lines. So I’ve developed four music principles that help me identify music that is inappropriate for Christians – and I’ve added one more that will very often apply in choosing what music to listen to, and what to avoid.

Lyrics that are not in harmony with Christian values

This is the most obvious principle, but in practice it’s often ignored. A song with a catchy tune can become enormously popular in spite of poor lyrics (think “Baby Shark” or the 80s travesty “Achy Breaky Heart”). Which means that there is a strong tendency to accept music based on its style, regardless of lyrics.

But when we set words to music, we exponentially multiply their effect on us: words set to music are much easier to memorize, we tend to listen to songs that we like over and over, and even when we aren’t actually listening to the music, the words can repeat in our minds due to “echoic retention.” What we put into our minds affects us, and so Proverbs 4:23 warns, “Keep your heart with all vigilance.” As Christians, we have a responsibility to pay attention to lyrics in order to understand what they are saying. If you have to ignore, re-interpret or skip parts of the lyrics, that’s a strong sign that you are basing your decision solely on what you like, not on what’s right.

Music that is associated with unchristian cultural elements

Musical styles have cultural connotations. For example, even though country music is largely written by wealthy people who live in cities (like Nashville), the genre itself is associated with a rural, mid-to-lower class lifestyle. Changing the lyrics doesn’t do away with the connotation of the musical style itself: if a church advertises that it features country-style worship music, you would expect to find western boots and cowboy hats among the congregation. They’ve changed the lyrics, but the musical connotation still remains. So even apart from the lyrics, musical genres that are strongly associated with an unchristian lifestyle should be avoided. For example, rap is associated with profanity, violence and gangs; punk rock is associated with rebellion and drugs.

Technology can help provide guidance in this area. If you are unsure of a new artist, a web search for “artists like _____________” will give you a sense of what the artist is about. Try searching the genre on wordassociations.net, and see what terms are frequently associated with the genre. Check the top artists in the genre, and see what topics they sing about. If you use a streaming music service like Pandora or Spotify, the site will give you music recommendations based on what you already listen to: if inappropriate music regularly shows up in these recommendations, that’s a strong indication that the music you are listening to is associated with an inappropriate musical culture.

Musicians that follow or mimic clearly unchristian culture, including music culture

Some musicians try to appeal to secular listeners who like a specific questionable music style, and give them a clean or even directly Christian alternative. What they accomplish more regularly, however, is to introduce Christian listeners to a new style of music, and once they develop a taste for that style, they are more likely to turn to the secular version of the music. So what is intended to draw secular listeners toward Christianity ends up pulling Christian listeners away from Christ. A similar dynamic is at work when a Christian performer mimics the dress or personal style associated with an unchristian lifestyle. So an artist that sports the heavy makeup or hairstyle that is typical of punk performers, for example, should be avoided.

Music that expresses rebellion or rage

In addition to the connotation of the musical genre, music itself communicates mood or emotion. This is why music is used to set the mood in everything from restaurants to movies. A heavy, driving beat creates a sense of anger or rage (maybe it replicates pounding or punching in anger); distorted instruments, usually electric guitars, de-emphasize the melody in order to emphasize the beat; lyrics that are sung in a screamed or strained voice, or are otherwise unintelligible, add to the feel of rage. Rebellion and rage have no place in the Christian life, and neither does music that expresses these emotions.

Submission to authorities

While this principle does not directly address musical styles, it does certainly apply to music. We are called to accept the directions and restrictions of those in authority over us. Music is usually an issue for the young – in most cases, those who struggle with music are at home, under their parents’ authority. If your parents forbid a style of music, the only right choice is to accept that restriction for as long as you are under their authority. But don’t just assume that it’s just their opinion: learn to think the music issue through and be prepared to make right choices once you are no longer under their direct authority.

Steve Oliver Written by:

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