Debate on Music

A Conservative Blog links to an article written by Kurt Woetzel on the issue of music’s neutrality or lack thereof. In it, the author attempts to argue that music is not and cannot be amoral. I would recommend reading the article before you read my response so as to be able to fully understand the context. As a jumping off point, let me state that it is my belief that music, in and of itself, is indeed amoral. By “in and of itself” I refer to the notes, chords and musical structure and style, not the lyrics of a song.

The author begins by asking some very good questions on the issue of music’s morality: “Is music neutral? Is sound capable of moral influence? Does music alone, with or without text, carry and communicate moral value? Is music amoral?” He goes on to repeat the oft stated axiom that Christians are the only ones who are concerned about the moralness of music, since apparently all secularists accept that it is in fact moral and not amoral. In the article, he quotes a number of secular musicians, philosophers, etc in saying that they each believe that music has moral value to it. The difficulty with this assertion is that it makes a number of assumptions: 1) that each person quoted makes their statement, not out of personal opinion, but of universal fact; and 2) that because a few secularists have given their belief and none quoted to the contrary, it must hold true that there aren’t any secularists who say that music is amoral. (Ironically, the author gives an example of someone who indeed does believe that music is an “object” and therefore amoral, but the example is given in such a dismissive manner as to be an afterthought, hoping perhaps that the reader didn’t catch his attempt at showing both sides.) Further, it must be wondered that perhaps there are more Christians arguing this issue than secularists mainly because secularists have no reason to argue this point in this first place.

Woetzel goes on to debate that the “music is amoral” argument came from Christians wanting to use the “world’s” music, not for worship sake but to appeal to the culture of the day and to “draw people into a living relationship with God.” While this may be true of the intent of some of the musicians and churches who use the music, it is a non-sequitur to say that since some use music in such a way, therefore the music itself is at fault for being used in such a way. It is certainly not a bad thing to want to use music in gospel efforts, but I would agree with the implication that music, as with everything including other art forms, is to be a conduit of worship toward God.

One of the main concerns I have with Woetzel’s argument is found in his statement that because music has the power to move and influence emotions and action, it therefore cannot be neutral and anything to the contrary is illogical. He states, “That which is neutral, obviously, cannot impact character.” This statement is incorrect, however, when you consider that nothing is done in a vacuum, especially music. If music were moral, having a rightness and wrongness about it, it should have the same affect on all listeners, regardless of context, surroundings, etc. Just as other means of communication (which Woetzel rightly compares music to) often find a greater or more specific meaning in what is communicated (spoken vs. written, voice inflection, body language, facial gestures, etc), so too music finds its interpretation in the context in which it is being communicated. Not only do you have the external contexts that can be easily seen and identified, but you also have internal contexts, such as a person’s belief system, world perspective, current mood, or even personal experience, that varies the interpretation of music widely. All these factors can cause two people, hearing the exact same piece of music at the exact same time to have two completely different and perhaps polar opposite reactions. So if, in the hearing of the music, one listener is drawn to think of an immoral activity and the other to think of praise for God, what category then does the music fall into? Using Woetzel’s logic, it must be either right or wrong, but it is obvious that it cannot be indexed as such.

Another concern I have with Woetzel’s argument is the assertion that if music is made to fit the culture, then it is wrong. He quotes with seeming disdain those who say that “We must relate to our culture” along with the subsequent changes in musical style to fit the culture. The problem with this thinking is that it denies the fact that music itself is part of culture. You cannot separate the two. I daresay the music that Woetzel would approve of for Christian usage at some point in time was itself considered too cultural. Someone of my father’s generation would perhaps be appalled at the musical style of Christian artist’s Third Day or even the secular group, Trans-Siberian Orchestra. I, on the other hand, enjoy both groups immensely and find that I can worship God in the listening and singing of the music of Third Day just as easily as I can that of Isaac Watts and John Newton.

What Woetzel does in his article is take the attitudes, motivations, goals, etc of the artists and those whose goals are not perhaps what they should be (I’m certainly not denying there are those within the Christian music realm that have less than God-honoring motives) and lay the blame for those influences directly on the music itself, rather than the sin nature found in everyone. Is it the music’s fault that an artist places more importance on fame than on God and thus adjusts his style to the target audience? Woeztel does a pretty good job of completely ignoring those in the “CCM” realm that employ the contemporary music style and do so in a God-honoring way that seeks to only bring God the glory.

I would recommend the article by Dr. Barry Liesch, “Is Music Morally Neutral?” in which he discusses the fact that as Christians, “No style should be considered evil or off limits in expressing the Gospel. I believe that a Christian composer has the freedom to use any style, any materials…Any chord, any rhythm, any instrument should be theoretically acceptable for worship.”

I firmly believe that music of any style can lead us to a God-centered worship. If we have dealt with heart issues, we’ll find that we can enjoy God’s creative work and His image can be seen in the musical creation of others.

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One Response

  1. My thanks to Eskypades for his comments, although I do not agree with his conclusions. I have posted a brief response on my site A Conservative Blog. Enjoy the reading!

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