Music and Morality (1 of 4): Music conveys emotion

"A frustrated pianist shouted to the soloist: 'I am playing the black keys and the white keys; why do you insist on singing in the cracks?'"1 When it comes to morality in music, most people insist on "singing in the cracks" between the white and black keys on the piano, so to speak. They believe music is amoral, or that it has no intrinsic morality--that it is a "gray area" with no absolute right or wrong. I would like to challenge this belief. I think that for the most part, the distinction between good and bad music is about as clear as the division between keys on a piano, and I would like to ask those who believe music is amoral: "Don't you think you're singing 'off key'?"

Here are four reasons I believe music has intrinsic morality:

  1. Music conveys emotion
  2. Music is a form of expression
  3. Music has order
  4. Music has a spiritual component

Over the next four posts, we will look at these four reasons. Today, I would like to look at the first one: Music conveys emotion. Basically, here is the first argument:

  1. Emotions are moral
  2. Music communicates emotions well
  3. Thus, music must be able to communicate a faithful "sampling" of emotions
  4. Therefore, music has intrinsic morality

1: Emotions are moral

Emotions of a dog, some good, some bad!

Some emotions are good, such as those associated with peace, love, and joy. The Bible often says that we are to "rejoice in the Lord" (e.g., Philippians 4:4), and that "the joy of the LORD is your strength" (Nehemiah 8:10). The Bible says of Jesus that the "zeal of thine house hath eaten me up." And in Ezekiel, God caused an angel to go through the city and "set a mark upon the foreheads of the men that sigh and that cry for all the abominations that be done in the midst thereof" (Ezekiel 9:4), and then to kill everyone else. Thus, some emotions are morally good and approved by God.

Other emotions are morally evil. Some "rejoice to do evil, and delight in the frowardness of the wicked" (Proverbs 2:14). Evil men "stirred up" people against Paul and the Christians, putting them in danger. Instead of trusting in God, the Israelites felt ungodly fear about going into Canaan and wanted to stone Joshua and Caleb (Numbers 14:10). Someone once said, "He that would be angry and sin not, must not be angry with anything but sin."2 Anyone who has been hated, or observed wicked people rejoicing in wickedness, will know in their hearts that these emotions are evil.

Three men were talking about getting more exercise by playing sports. The first said, "You can get great exercise playing basket ball." "That's nothing," said the second, "compared to the exercise you get running back and forth on a soccer field." The third said, "I get more exercise than that playing golf." Surprised, they asked, "How's that?" "When I lose my temper," he replied, "there's more equipment to break." Yes, some emotions are bad!

Some may respond, "But the emotions themselves are neither good nor bad; it's just a matter of how and when they are felt. For example, we are not to rejoice in evil, but we are to rejoice in the Lord. We are not to fear man, but we are to fear God. The emotions are the same," you may say, "but it's how they are applied that's different." I disagree, and I think common sense clarifies this point. Have you ever been around thugs smirking and laughing in an evil cause? The atmosphere is completely different than of children smiling and laughing innocently. Both are smiling, laughing, and "rejoicing," but the emotional flavor and makeup is completely different. Evil rejoicing is a perversion of righteous rejoicing, not a replica; "all such rejoicing is evil" (James 4:16). To rejoice in evil is not like using a generic tool, such as a hammer, for an evil cause. Rather, it is like a parody: it resembles the original but is twisted so that it becomes something exactly opposite.

In summary, I think it is both biblical and common-sense. Emotions are moral. Next, I would like to discuss how music communicates emotion well.

2: Music communicates emotion well

Music is an effective medium of emotion. We have seen children run around and dance at the tune of a happy song. We know in our hearts that certain happy and silly songs would be completely inappropriate at a funeral (e.g., Proverbs 25:20: "...he that singeth songs to an heavy heart"). It is quite obvious that music arouses strong emotions in us. The famous classical composer Mozart said, "I pay no attention whatever to anybody's praise or blame. I simply follow my own feelings."3

Even Stephen Jay Gould, the evolutionist, understood the emotional power of music and used it as an argument against sociobiology (i.e., using evolution and the belief that we are just animals to fundamentally change our views on morality, human behavior, and other topics in specific ways), even though he was an agnostic. He recounts how one song moved him quite strongly in an emotional way:

And I remembered the visceral reaction I had experienced upon hearing the four brass choirs, finally amalgamated with the 10 tympani in the massive din preceding the great Tuba mirum -- the spine tingling and the involuntary tears that almost prevented me from singing. I tried to analyse it in the terms of Wilson's [sociobiology] conjecture -- reduction of behavior to neurobiology on the one hand and sociobiology on the other. And I realised that this conjecture might apply to my experience. ... But I also realised that these explanations, however 'true', could never capture the meaning of that experience.4

The Bible often links music and emotion. For instance, the Bible says, "Is any merry? let him sing psalms" (James 5:13), and "Make a joyful noise unto the LORD, all the earth: make a loud noise, and rejoice, and sing praise" (Psalm 98:4). The appendix at the end of this article gives more examples.

Some will object that this is relative. "A song might make you sad but not me; music invokes different emotions in different people." To an extent, this is true; some emotions are based on culture and personal background. Two children can look at the same picture of a red cardinal at a birdfeeder, and while one is happy at the bright colors and cheerful landscape, the other is sad because the red cardinal reminds her that she misses her recently deceased grandmother who had a similar birdfeeder. The same is true of music; certain chords and sounds may bring out emotions on an individual basis.

But it would be wrong to say that all emotions in music are relative. That would be like saying all of art is relative (some is definitely evil), or like saying that all of speech is relative to how you interpret it (some is definitely evil).

And so I believe music communicates emotion quite well. And much of the emotion communicated is consistent from person to person; not all of it is relative to the individual.

3: Music can communicate a faithful sampling of emotion

If music can communicate emotion effectively, and if many emotions are good and many are bad, it only makes sense that music can pretty much communicate all of them. Think about an artist; the same artist's brush that painted the beautiful scenic portrait can be used to draw gloomy and morbid paintings as well. The same carpenter's tools that built a beautiful and cheerful church could also build a dark saloon. And the same writer's pen that wrote inspiring, bright tales can also be used to tell tales of evil. In all of these arts, the expression of good or evil is limited only by the creativity and skill of the artists.

If music is to be a medium of emotion the way that other arts and crafts are, then it must be capable of transmitting not just good but also evil. Otherwise, it is an incredible anomaly. It would be the biggest "oddball" among the arts--the only one that, for whatever reason, was capable only of transmitting good. I believe this is not the case, but rather, like other arts, music can communicate a faithful sampling of all types of emotions, both good and bad.

4: Conclusion

So that's the first reason I believe music has intrinsic morality. It communicates emotion so beautifully and well. Unfortunately, though, some emotions are evil, and a capable writer can communicate these through music just as he can communicate good emotions through music. Thus, music has intrinsic morality. In the next post in this series, we will look at another reason music is intrinsically moral: it is an excellent form of expression.

Martin Luther said, "The devil takes flight at the sound of music..."5, and I would argue this applies only to godly music. Once we realize that music has intrinsic morality, I hope it will help us to seek music which carries godly and good emotion. Doing so will help us to keep our minds filled with pure things, and doing so will also help us to keep our hearts.

Apendix: Bible verses linking music and emotion

  • "with mirth, and with songs" (Genesis 31:27)
  • "I will sing unto the LORD, for he hath triumphed gloriously" (Exodus 15:1)
  • "singing and dancing, to meet king Saul, with tabrets, with joy, and with instruments of musick" (I Samuel 18:6)
  • "with rejoicing and with singing, as it was ordained by David" (II Chronicles 23:18)
  • "And they sang praises with gladness" (II Chronicles 29:30)
  • "therefore my heart greatly rejoiceth; and with my song will I praise him" (Psalm 28:7)
  • "and I caused the widow's heart to sing for joy" (Job 29:13)
  • "thou shalt compass me about with songs of deliverance" (Psalms 32:7)
  • "O let the nations be glad and sing for joy" (Psalm 67:4)
  • "Sing aloud unto God our strength: make a joyful noise unto the God of Jacob" (Psalm 81:1; cf. 95:1)
  • "Make a joyful noise unto the LORD, all the earth: make a loud noise, and rejoice, and sing praise" (Psalm 98:4)
  • "Serve the LORD with gladness: come before his presence with singing." (Psalm 100:2)
  • "Then was our mouth filled with laughter, and our tongue with singing" (Psalm 126:2)
  • "he that singeth songs to an heavy heart" (Proverbs 25:20)
  • "but the righteous doth sing and rejoice" (Proverbs 29:6)
  • "Ye shall have a song, as in the night when a holy solemnity is kept; and gladness of heart, as when one goeth with a pipe to come into the mountain of the LORD, to the mighty One of Israel." (Isaiah 30:29)
  • "even with joy and singing" (Isaiah 35:2)
  • "break forth into singing" (Isaiah 44:23)
  • "Sing, O heavens; and be joyful, O earth; and break forth into singing, O mountains: for the LORD hath comforted his people, and will have mercy upon his afflicted." (Isaiah 49:13)
  • "Therefore the redeemed of the LORD shall return, and come with singing unto Zion; and everlasting joy shall be upon their head: they shall obtain gladness and joy; and sorrow and mourning shall flee away." (Isaiah 51:11)
  • "Break forth into joy, sing together" (Isaiah 52:9)
  • "For ye shall go out with joy, and be led forth with peace: the mountains and the hills shall break forth before you into singing, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands." (Isaiah 55:12)
  • "Behold, my servants shall sing for joy of heart" (Isaiah 65:14)
  • "For thus saith the LORD; Sing with gladness for Jacob" (Jeremiah 31:7)
  • "Sing, O daughter of Zion; shout, O Israel; be glad and rejoice with all the heart, O daughter of Jerusalem" (Zephaniah 3:14)
  • "The LORD thy God in the midst of thee is mighty; he will save, he will rejoice over thee with joy; he will rest in his love, he will joy over thee with singing." (Zephaniah 3:17)
  • "Sing and rejoice, O daughter of Zion" (Zechariah 2:10)
  • "Is any merry? let him sing psalms" (James 5:13)

  1. Charles R. Swindoll, Másde 1001 Illustraciones y Citas de Swindoll: Maneras Sobresalientes de Martillar Eficazmente Su Mensaje; c2007, 2012 por Grupo Nelson; publicado en Nashville, Tennessee, Estados Unidos de América. Título en inglés: Swindoll's Ultimate Book of Illustrations & Quotes, p. 497; original (in Spanish translation): "Un pianista frustrado le gritó al solista: 'Yo estoy tocando las teclas negras y las teclas blancas, ¿por qué insistes en cantar en las grietas?'" 

  2. Tan, Paul Lee, 15,000 Illustrations, ISBN 0-932940-11-0, c1998, Bible Communications, Inc., Dallas, Texas; p. 183, #176 

  3., accessed 2018 March 

  4. Gould, Stephen Jay, "Sociobiology: the art of storytelling," New Scientist, November 16, p 533; quoted in ReMine, Walter James, The Biotic Message: Evolution Versus Message Theory, St. Paul, Minn. : St. Paul Science, c1993, p. 160 

  5., accessed 2018 March 

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