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Is music a neutral “thing”?

One argument I regularly hear in defense of the notion that music is neutral is that it is just a “thing,” and “things” are neutral. A few thoughts in response:

First, saying music is a “thing” is like saying tone of voice is a “thing.” They’re not; they are human communication, and human communication is always moral. Sounds are “things.” But once I begin to arrange those sounds into words, sentences, thoughts, and tones of voice, I am now communicating, and that is moral.

Second, music is not merely a “tool” of communication as some suggest; it is communication. Again, music’s connection with vocal tone is instructive: tone of voice is not just a tool of communication; it is part of the communication itself. How I say something to my children, my wife, my boss, or my God is just as important as what I say to them because how I say something is part of the communication. This is why the Bible commands that we speak the truth in love (Eph 4:15); “in love” refers not just to what we say, but also how we say it. This is why God commands us to worship reverently (Heb 12:28); reverence refers not just to the words we say in worship or even the object of our worship; it addresses how we worship.

Another biblical illustration of Paul’s concern over how we communicate is 1 Corinthians 2:1-5:

And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.

Paul contrasts two different ways of communicating the gospel: with “lofty speech” or “in weakness and in fear and much trembling.” I won’t make any more of this at this point than to say that Paul is indicating that how we communicate something is significant and must be evaluated as to its worth and appropriateness.

Third, those who argue music is a neutral thing are making a very common category error in these discussions. I agree completely, of course, that whatever God creates is good. God created music. God created meat. These things are good.

But God did not create specific instances of musical expression. People did. God did not create Gregorian chant, German chorales, Appalachian folk tunes, country western, jazz, or rock ‘n’ roll. People did. And because these are all human communication, they are moral.

It is very dangerous to ascribe to God something that he did not make.

Communication is categorically different than something like food, and thus passages about, for example, meat offered to idols are not directly applicable. They are applicable only if someone were to argue that the very act of making music is immoral. If someone said that, I would agree with you that since God created music, music is good, and therefore we must not call something evil that God created. The categories used in the kind of arguments I’m addressing are these:

Meat = A specific song or style

That is mistaken, rather, here are more equivalent categories:

Meat = Music
Spoiled meat = Forms of music that communicate in an immoral way
Healthy meat = Forms of music that communicate in a wholesome way

To summarize, what we communicate is important, and how we communicate it is equally important. Music is the how we communicate something.

Now, of course, none of this proves that specific songs or styles are immoral; that is not my point. I would simply insist that since music is communication, we must be willing to carefully and critically judge music itself to determine how it communicates, and we must then actively apply what Scripture says about communication to our musical communication.

Scott Aniol

About Scott Aniol

Scott Aniol is the founder and Executive Director of Religious Affections Ministries. He is director of doctoral worship studies at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he teaches courses in ministry, worship, hymnology, aesthetics, culture, and philosophy. He is the author of Worship in Song: A Biblical Approach to Music and Worship, Sound Worship: A Guide to Making Musical Choices in a Noisy World, and By the Waters of Babylon: Worship in a Post-Christian Culture, and speaks around the country in churches and conferences. He is an elder in his church in Fort Worth, TX where he resides with his wife and four children. Views posted here are his own and not necessarily those of his employer.

79 Responses to Is music a neutral “thing”?

  1. Scott,

    What if it were said that true worship music is from the heart — and if the heart is right and true, and right and true towards God — then everything else will fall into place.


  2. In theory that sounds good, but the heart is deceitful. Even believers battle remaining depravity. So it is quite possible for someone with all the right motives and heart to express something that is not good.

  3. I understand and generally sympathize with your point relating music and things like tone being moral. At the same time, there are senses where tones can be somewhat ambiguous or subject to interpretation based on context. The same or similar tone might communicate directness and firmness in one context or individual person accustomed to speaking that way (say, a drill sergeant or football QB), while in another person might communicate sinful anger or frustration. Scripture doesn’t explicitly forbid certain tones, and a drill sergeant is not being immoral utilizing those tones–though one *might* argue it would be immoral to use them with ones children (though not without some debate).

    In other words, I’m not certain that appealing to tone as moral advances your case with music in a clear and concise way. Society would apply similar reasoning to its possible neutrality as in the case of music “styles” if they gave it any consideration.

  4. Absolutely. I completely agree that there are many levels of communication that are contextual. But that doesn’t mean, therefore, that it is neutral. It simply means that there are several more layers of meaning to take into consideration.

    I am not even arguing here that one form of communication is always universally bad or always universally good. I’m just arguing that it is one or the other (often based on context); it is not neutral.

  5. So, the terms need to be further clarified. :) Perhaps what people say when they mean “neutral” is not the same as you understand it to be. On the other hand, how you are employing “moral” is not necessarily how your audience might understand it (as opposed to “immoral.”

    Observation: these discussions strike me as a similar argument to trying to convince a wide audience on gun control. It cn be hard to be unattached. :)

  6. Greg,

    People who don’t understand epidemiology often call food poisoning “stomach flu.” That doesn’t mean that proper nomenclature is not important, or that their opinions should be normative when it’s time to combat an outbreak of food poisoning. If people who think food poisoning is “stomach flu” want to make helpful contributions to discussions of epidemiology, there is a burden placed on them to get some old fashion book learnin’ before they are in a place to contribute.

  7. Chris,

    True, but if you want to stop the spread, in the end you don’t need to establish the proper terms as much as you do persuade people the threat exists and how to guard against it.

    In the immediate case we are considering, the issue is convincing a skeptical or even hostile audience that there is indeed a problem. They don’t perceive themselves to be doubled over in abdominal pain, to borrow your imagery. So, appealing to tone may help a sympathetic audience, but to one that is already assuming that music is just a neutral “thing”–well, it isn’t going to be especially persuasive.

    You can say that people need to get up to speed and read, and that may even be true. However, what I am raising here is that more needs to be done to make some initial persuasion as to *why*, in a way that will challenge people who have grown up breathing the air of the current societal climate, don’t know anything different, and are, from their own perspective, not experiencing any symptoms that need treating.

  8. “I am not even arguing here that one form of communication is always universally bad or always universally good. I’m just arguing that it is one or the other (often based on context); it is not neutral.”

    I think most agree that nothing is ever truly “neutral.” But isn’t this argument ultimately an endeavor to bring a degree of objectivity to the discussion where many of us see stylistic matters a subjective and preferential issue altogether? This is the very reason why many of us continue to seek scriptural texts to warrant the proliferation of such an dogmatic stylistic standard.

    But perhaps your only point is that music isn’t neutral. And certainly we can all agree that everything is ultimately a matter of the heart.

  9. I’m using “neural” to mean that it cannot, in itself (apart from a text) be either good or bad. I think that’s how most people use it when talking about music. Chad’s phrase”subjective and preferential” is also pretty close. Music is never good or bad in itself; what it means is purely relative.

    That’t the only point here that I am arguing against. Because it is human communication, it HAS to be good or bad.

    And I think comparing it to tone of voice is a very helpful way forward, especially when people want me to give them “a degree of objectivity” in matters like these. When your son or daughter speaks to you disrespectfully, do you have an objective way to explain to him/her WHY the tone of voice is objectionable? Do you even have a scriptural text to defend your assessment of their tone?

  10. “When your son or daughter speaks to you disrespectfully, do you have an objective way to explain to him/her WHY the tone of voice is objectionable? Do you even have a scriptural text to defend your assessment of their tone?”

    No, but someone could say “Get out of the way!” in a certain tone, and it could mean any number of different things, all with the same tone. Someone could be angrily and rudely telling another person off. They could be using a commanding tone to get a quick reaction because of imminent dangers. They could be doing so out of a sense of unwarranted pride and arrogance. They could be communicating a sharp response to someone else’s insubordination… Some are objectionable, some are legitimate. It depends on the use and context, but the subtleties are not immediately apparent in tone alone. Even in your example, Scott, you had to provide context–tone was not enough to draw a conclusion on its own. You cited the nature of a family relationship and authority/compliance.

  11. Greg,

    Point taken, but you’re missing something important: not everyone is skeptical or hostile to these ideas. Not everyone needs music to be neutral. In fact, though the folks who are skeptical and hostile are often vigorous and vocal in their efforts to derail the conversation with demand for Bible verses and other red herrings, they are a minority, especially in the history of the church.

    Why assume a skeptical or hostile audience comprised of people who don’t know the categories and are opposed to learning them? Why not simply articulate the position, hoping that those who genuinely want to interact will take the time to learn about the subject?

  12. Right, Greg, but I’ve never denied that context matters. It absolutely does and factors in to whether or not something is good or bad.

    But there is also the context of “holy living.” Some acts, I would argue, are always wrong because of the context of a consecrated Christian life.

  13. Yes, we are able to easily identify when our children speak to us in a disrespectful manner. Where you lose me is how we know which musical styles (if any) inherently communicate disrespect (or other immoral qualities), or in regards to who gets to decide based on their subjective impressions?

    The answer I usually get is something like: “This is where the musical experts come in handy…no, not those ones but these one’s over here…”

    The insistence upon scriptural argumentation doesn’t always stem from a bias against conservative applications, but for some of us due to a less than convincing position we would have to defend to our congregations. This doesn’t seem so intrinsically evident through natural theology as to dismiss “the objection of scripture’s sufficiency.”

  14. “Why assume a skeptical or hostile audience comprised of people who don’t know the categories and are opposed to learning them? Why not simply articulate the position, hoping that those who genuinely want to interact will take the time to learn about the subject?”

    If we believe something is important and true, shouldn’t we seek to persuade people? Again, to hearken back to your example, if people are getting sick because of what they’re eating, and we could help them avoid the substance causing the pain, shouldn’t we try to convince and implement changes that will prevent contraction of the contaminant?

    We are to not only proclaim, but exhort, correct? Shouldn’t we give some attention, then, to exhorting effectively?

  15. Chad, if you child said to you, “How do you know my tone is disrespectful? I don’t feel disrespectful in my heart,” what would you say?


    But doesn’t that actually happen with kids? I mean, a child can fire back defensively, not intentionally trying to hurt or demean a parent, but communicating inappropriately nonetheless. They will need to be told (and sometimes have it reinforced) that they have overstepped boundaries. Plenty of parents fail to do that these days, though, and instead establish the wrong sensibilities in a child’s development.

  16. Chad, Greg, others looking on:

    You’re right: it can be difficult to articulate, especially to people who are already married to the contrary position. The hardest person to awaken, it has been said, is the person who is pretending to sleep.

    People who don’t buy it don’t have to worry about articulating it to their congregation. We do. So then, it’s our problem, and not theirs.

    Further: musical experts don’t ‘come in handy,’ they furnish categories.

    When I talk to people in our congregation, I usually ask questions broadly about the propriety of things like banjos in requiems, dirges in victory parades, “Stand By Your Man” as walkout music at a high school wrestling meet. Most people are not aware that they even have instincts about these things, and have not taken any time to cultivate an opinion. I don’t start with “you love garbage,” I start with “wouldn’t it be funny if [defending state champion wrestler] walked out to “Stand By Your Man?” and then we laugh about it. Seed planted.

    I’m convinced already, so I’m not trying to convince myself. I know what I want my people to feel and believe; AND I know how long it took me to get as far as I am; AND I know that I myself have got a long way to go.

  17. Scott, we learn speech from each other…intonations and accents, let alone vocabulary. While there is a chance that I’ve misjudged him, any parent who knows his/her child can usually pick up on some things from the child’s tone of voice.

    But again, you lose me in making this analogy connect to particular musical styles. I think society could generally agree from a select number of audio clips that certain speaking tones communicate disrespect. But, aside from ultimately imitating those very sounds directly, it seems to me hard to imagine that we could all agree upon a disrespectful musical style. This is not to say that there are not certain musical styles most appropriate for particular times, but this may imply that there is no musical style objectively inappropriate all of the time.

  18. It has happened to me a couple times, Greg. I have scolded my son for speaking to me disrespectfully, and in all sincerity he replied that he was not intending to be disrespectful; how do I know that he was being disrespectful? So I told that I believed him if he sincerely was not trying to be disrespectful, but regardless of his intentions, he was indeed speaking in a disrespectful way, and if he really did not have disrespect in his heart, then he should change his tone. Then I even talked to him about how I know his tone was disrespectful. I did not have a chapter and verse or scientific explanation. I simply said that how he spoke is how people speak who have disrespect in their hearts, and since I am older, wiser, and his authority, he should listen to me, learn what disrespect looks like, and avoid it.

    Chad, body language, vocal tone, facial expression, etc. is universal communication because all humans share a common humanity. Music is in the same category. It may be hard for you to imagine agreement about what particular forms of music express, but history and research suggests otherwise. There is largely consensus even in the secular musicological world about the universality of musical communication, though many Christians don’t like to admit this.

    And yes, my aim is to persuade, and my experience in churches and the classroom tells me that this line of reasoning is very persuasive with those who are open and eager to learn. I have rarely been able to convince someone who is dead set against agreeing with me. But I have often seen lights turn on with those who are genuinely interested, ready to hear the evidence, and not simply arguing for arguing’s sake. (Not implying that anyone in this comment thread falls into the latter category, by the way!)

  19. Chris, who are the ones pretending to sleep? I’m genuinely intrigued by that line.

    Also, I’m curious why your congregation and others require philosophical schooling on the moral objectivity of musical styles. Could it be that…?

    (1) Although Spirit-indwelt saints, they’re apparently unable to discern something God has made plain enough in creation to not have to articulate in scripture.

    (2) We realize that believers with just their Bibles and the Holy Spirit would never come to such conclusions on their own.

  20. I will check that out. Thanks! In turn, you’d probably enjoy Paul O’Dette’s Renaissance lute music. There is a golden thread of folk tradition that ties some of that old lute music to what we enjoy as folk music today.

  21. Or…

    (3) Enlightenment rationalism mixed with a desperate attempt by evangelical Christians to defend Christian rock have so permeated the church with their thinking that many Christians have adopted an errant perspective on music without even knowing it.

  22. I find it interesting to consider how presuppositional apologetics relates to all that you just wrote, Scott. But one difference of course is that you share generally the same worldview with Christian brothers who fail to see how your evidence sufficiently argues your conclusion. And, of course one of the primary identifying markers of the biblical worldview is that God’s Reason (scripture) trumps human reasoning (which is open to flaws).

    Your arguments are not unpersuasive simply for falling on deaf ears. They’re unpersuasive to many committed to the full sufficiency of scripture – that God gave us in His Word everything we needed to know for trusting him perfectly and for obeying him perfectly (Psalm 119:1; 2 Timothy 3:17).

  23. Just to interject (and then eject), Chad, the Bible tells us to think on whatever is lovely, yet does not exhaustively list all lovely things. What is a Christian to do?

  24. I’m curious, Chris: Are you against all non-Christian rock? All non-Christian music? Or just Christian-rock (which may in itself need a cleaner definition)?

  25. It depends on what you mean by worldview. If you mean in the overarching sense, then yes, all Christians share the same worldview.

    But certainly not all Christians share the same categories of thought and understanding of things–worldview in a more narrow sense.

    I would suggest, for example, that many Christians today are nominalists, and I would suggest that such a presuppositional understanding of the nature of things is problematic and needs to be corrected.

    As to your biblical authority question, I would urge you to read around this site a bit on the subject, for it is one we have regularly discussed. To believe in Sola Scriptura is not to believe that the Bible addresses everything or that we will never have to go outside Scripture to arrive at right conclusions. Such an assumption is absurd if you think for a while about it.

    Once again I cite the child speaking disrespectfully to his father. Where in the Bible is that explicitly addressed?

  26. David, is that an argument against sola scriptura? Or just your voicing that it can be an inconvenience?

    Scripture gives general statements and principles from cover to cover. We’re usually quite capable of interpreting those general ideas by more specific ones found elsewhere. That’s pretty standard operation for any traditional hermeneutic.

  27. Chad,

    Scott beat me to it.

    They need to think about music because Philippians 1:10 says they are to approve things that are excellent in order to be sincere and blameless until the day of Christ.

    Maybe sanctification is a corporate process that involves changing and deepening our thinking about concepts that we took for granted when we were ‘in Adam’? And maybe God intends us to exercise some wisdom even in things beyond the pages of Scripture, where we will have to borrow categories to explain things?

    I’m curious if you’re curious or looking to troll. Your tone has soured considerably. I’ll tell you what I’m against if you can assure me that you’re asking in good conscience.

  28. It, as Scott intimates, is an argument against a certain definition of Sola Scriptura.

    When you say “found elsewhere” I must assume you mean found elsewhere in the Bible?

  29. I’m going to bow out of this for now, but I will end by making this observation. We are no longer trying to prevent an invasion… in many senses, we have to come to grips that the ideas we champion are to most people in society today revolutionary. Different strategies are necessary.

  30. Chad,

    I like all sorts of different music. I’ve got a past, let me tell you. I don’t assume that God wants to be worshiped using all sorts of different music, because some of those sorts are simply not capable of carrying the weight of Christian goodness, truth, and beauty. Nor do I trust my likes and dislikes enough to make them shoulds and shouldn’ts (sp) or oughts and oughtn’ts (sp).

  31. We’re going around in circles, Scott. Your analogy assumes that musical style works as objectively as impressions given by your child’s tone of voice. I’ve answered above why I genuinely don’t see the two to be nearly as closely related.

    Of course sola scriptura does not address all truths. However, God tells us that living by scripture (and scripture alone) matures us in the faith and keeps us blameless, verses I cited above. If something is immoral but not even generally addressed in scripture, it would seemingly refute against scripture’s sufficiency to keep our way blameless. Many other historical periods have presented challenges to biblical Christianity, but Christians could run to scripture for answers. (Pastors like myself feel no obligation to defend “Christian Rock” and certainly are less than sympathetic toward “Enlightened rationalism.”)

    And concerning worldview, the point is that you are (perhaps admittedly) as closed-minded as those with whom you disagree. You look for historical evidence to support your presupposition and seem surprised when others who don’t accept your conclusion find the evidence unsatisfactory.

  32. Chris, trolling and asking important questions are not the same. If musical style on its own is more preferential than many pastors are preaching to their flock, then this discussion matters greatly. That would, in fact, be then a form of sanctificational legalism. If, however, certain musical styles are objectively sinful, then pastors will need more convincing methods for teaching their errant flock than arguments from analogies.

    The irony, Chris, is that you still judged my “tone,” even in the absence of vocal intonation. I don’t fault you. I’ve done it before. :)

  33. Yes, David. scripture helps us interpret itself. Therefore, we look to the biblical canon to give clarity concerning general statements and principles, not to extra-biblical data, which is open to dispute.

  34. So Chad, do you believe that terminating a 3 day old fetus is sin? If so, where in Scripture do you find a clear statement to that effect?

    I’ll save us from going round and round on this, but I would simply suggest that your assertion that to believe in Sola Scriptura is to reject the use of any extra-biblical data in discerning the will of God on a matter isn’t what the Bible itself expects, not is it what the greatest champions of Sola Scriptura ever meant, nor is is what you yourself follow when you make moral decisions.

    I’ll just give you one other example. In Galatians 5:19 Paul lists several sins that we are to avoid: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies. Are you saying that unless an act is on this list, or a list like this, then it is not sin? Are you insisting that every possible sinful act is explicitly listed in Scripture. I assume not, and the passage itself explicitly says that it is not meant to be exhaustive, as the list ends with “and things like these.”

    The Bible is not an encyclopedia of commands and prohibitions. Rather, it is an all-sufficient window into the mind and heart of God and a guide for a life that is pleasing to him. He expects mature Christians to train their powers of discerning to recognize good and evil, even when there is not chapter and verse (Hebrews 5:14).

  35. Chad,

    Yes, I did. Tone communicates even through a clunky medium such as this. That one seemed like a ‘gotcha’ question so I figured I’d clarify.

    I have to pay the bills (finish a Bible study) too, so I’m done for now.

    I commend to you Paul’s prayer in Phil 1:8-10. We’re not born knowing the things that are excellent, nor do we receive entire sanctification [legalistic or otherwise] in our taste, will, discernment, or judgment at justification. It’s important. But there is a difference between binding someone’s conscience and helping him to discern for himself the difference between things merely lawful and things expedient.

    I’m about 20 years in on a journey that began with wondering why we sang Bible verses out of context in the charismatic church I was attending at the time. Even after that time I played in worship bands etc. for another five years or so. So I know that I wouldn’t have been able to start with what Scott is talking about here.

  36. Chad,

    You noted that “many of us see stylistic matters a subjective and preferential issue altogether”. But if tone is a stylistic matter, and stylistic matters are totally subjective, then wouldn’t that mean that nothing is necessarily inappropriate? For example, if we consider the “Star Spangled Banner” (the American national anthem), does not the tone of voice convey a certain level of appropriateness — or perhaps a certain level of respect or faithfulness or reverence — to the context (or subject matter) in which the song involves itself? I’m American, and I believe that the context of the Star Spangled Banner deserves an appropriate level of respect. And if a rendition conveys a level of respect, does it not therefore have elements of “good” in it?

    I was listening to a discussion somewhere in my online archive where the speaker is contrasting two markedly different tones for a small amount of three or four words. The contrast in meaning is striking when one listens to one tone versus the other.

    There was a worship/praise song which I determined, after many listens, had content that was not appropriate for the context of the song. I think Chris Ames (if I remember correctly) made a very good and valid point, on another webpage, that one particular rendition of the hymn “Amazing Grace” by Chris Tomlin was quite inappropriate, because it was markedly a performance that could not be followed by the listening audience. I think that we can all agree that “The Star Spangled Banner”, when sung at an event, lends itself to performance. But when we hear Tomlin’s rendition of “Amazing Grace”, it’s impossible to follow him because his rendition was (is) wholly and entirely unpredictable and un-follow-able. Now, I think we can all agree that the song can be sung in various sundry styles, and different time signatures, and sung in different keys and versions, and still be appropriate. I have nothing against Chris Tomlin, I’m simply saying that his rendition was inappropriate.

  37. Scott, aborting a three day old child was never possible until we knew precisely what “we” would be doing. (And of course scripture has much to say concerning murder, the dignity of human life, and even personhood inside the mother’s womb.) Again, I cannot see how your analogies relate to musical style.

    Regarding Galatians 5:19, we don’t need an exhaustive list because God in his providence gave us 66 books that give us clarity concerning what is sin versus what is righteousness. God doesn’t leave virtue vs. vice up to common sense (although in most societies laws against stealing and murder are commonly held). He revealed them all – all of the truths we needed to know in order to trust him and obey him. Aside from scripture what do we need? Certainly the Holy Spirit. But additional historical evidences regarding music and theory seems less convincing to many of us.

    And again, Hebrews 5:14 is dealing with the discernment that comes through the work of the Holy Spirit through the Word of God. This is a kind of discernment that the smartest scholar and best researcher could never on his own acquire, because this is spiritual discernment. Something 2 Timothy 3:17 also addresses.

  38. Todd, the question isn’t whether vocal tones are completely relative. We’ve all agreed that they aren’t (although still somewhat subjective and open to misinterpretation). I fail, however, to follow the analogy between musical style and vocal tone (e.g. disrespectful tone to parents). What musical style can we confidently state is the “disrespectful” style? But please endeavor to answer that without the analogy of speaking.

    Concerning the Star Spangled Banner (and other songs with lyrics meant to communicate solemn respect for someone or something), I think we would tend to agree unanimously with some versions, but might acknowledge increasing subjectivity when it came to others. (Facial expression, eye-rolls would all play into it as well, of course.)

    To play my cards a bit, we keep what we feel to be a high standard at our church for worship services in order to not allow one person’s preferences to distract from another. Of course, others might perhaps say that their standard is higher and that they would not be comfortable in our worship services. Our primary criteria for worship songs is (1) theologically rich content and (2) sing-ability for our congregation. I would add, though, that the next church down the road might find some songs to be beneficial for corporate singing that our church would have stumbled over.

    But this notion of certain kinds of music being sinful themselves (not only not ideal for a particular worship context) due to their style alone is a notion unsettling, not from the perspective of my personal preferences so much as the needed biblical authority to make such a dogmatic claim.

  39. Chad,

    Thank you for clarifying. I’ll try to stay on-point; sorry for any misunderstanding. I’m still pondering these things. You make interesting points.


  40. Scott,

    You say God created music, but not specific instances of musical expression. Can you give me an example of music without including any specific instance of musical expression?


  41. God created time and sound which makes rhythm possible. God created pitch which makes melody and harmony possible. And God created timbre which makes vocal/instrumental quality differences possible. These, together, are music.

    God didn’t write any songs. At least not that you or I have heard.

  42. Scott,

    You say, “In theory that sounds good, but the heart is deceitful. Even believers battle remaining depravity. So it is quite possible for someone with all the right motives and heart to express something that is not good.” But “not good” is not necessarily sinful; do you agree?

  43. Scott,

    In the context of corporate worship, could you provide a Scriptural example of worship where “all the right motives and heart” can produce something that God does not and will not accept? Cain’s sacrifice to God was not brought with the right heart, nor the right motives — but Abel had a right and loving heart toward God, and Abel brought forth an honorable sacrifice to God, and God accepted it.

  44. Todd, the sinful question is interesting; Someone just called me yesterday about that very thing.

    Yes, something could be not best or not good and still not sinful. I would agree with that. But some acts (including musical expressions) are sinful.

    As to a biblical example of right heart and wrong act, actually we don’t know for sure whether Cain’s motivation was right or not. Regardless, other examples that comes to mind is Nadab and Abihu, who offered unauthorized fire to the Lord, David bringing the Ark back on a fine cart, or Uzzah reaching out to steady the Ark.

  45. Todd,

    Another thing to consider: people who have the wrong motives are the last to know it. They think they are acting either in their own best interest, or that they are really pleasing God.

    I look at 2 Kings 17:27-41 as a parallel situation. Today most people aren’t taught to forsake their idolatry, but rather to merely add (or worse, “try”) Jesus. When people come in with that level of commitment, how would you keep them around? Give them everything they want.

  46. In response to David, and as a general comment, I question the premise that “God created music.” If we mean that God created the capacity for it, then surely we create the songs. And since the use of the expression (music) is the only way it is known to us, we create music.

    I have yet to hear that God created poetry, or painting, or dance. But these must also be true if allowing a capacity for something equals the creation of an expression. Similarly, we can also assume that God created sin. Of course, He did not.

    If the visible use of a form of expression is the only way that it is known to us, I think that we do not have a good way to know if the expression is inherently moral.

  47. Aaron,

    That is what a nominalist would say. You may want to (I know, I know) read a little bit about nominalism vs. realism and then think about the ramifications for Christian theology.

    A realist would say that God created poetry, painting, dance, writing, and every other CATEGORY of human expression. That God did not IMMEDIATELY create the Many does not entail that He did not create the One. He gave us the tools; we are enjoined to employ those tools for His glory.

  48. “The Bible is not an encyclopedia of commands and prohibitions. Rather, it is an all-sufficient window into the mind and heart of God and a guide for a life that is pleasing to him. He expects mature Christians to train their powers of discerning to recognize good and evil, even when there is not chapter and verse.”

    Scott, can you give me an example (besides music) of a sin that is no where described in scripture? (Again, the example of an abortion identifies a practice that comes into direct conflict with scores of passages, which is why there is pretty much unanimous support for the pro life movement by Christians.)

    Of course the Bible is not simply a list of commands and prohibitions; however, it is a sufficient guide for believers toward knowing how we ought to live. Applying principles related to tax evasion in the modern economy is one thing (Matthew 22; Romans 13), but applicational leaps from Philippians 4:8 general descriptions to musical assertions no where described in scripture is quite another thing altogether. Or at least, that’s how it seems to many of us and why this argumentation has not proved to be convincing.

  49. Au contraire, my friend. Just because YOU think viewing abortion as sin is clear in Scripture doesn’t mean you can render it out of bounds as an example. You may believe, using your powers of discernment, that “abortion identifies a practice that comes into direct conflict with scores of passages” (and I agree completely, by the way), but nevertheless there is not clear chapter and verse, you had to use logic to get there (and extra-biblical evidence), and others might disagree with your conclusion. And there are plenty who do exactly on this basis. How do you know life begins at conception? Does the Bible explicitly tell you that, or do you have to infer that from Scripture?

    I (and many others) happen to believe that rap, for example, comes into direct conflict with scores of passages of Scripture. Just because you don’t agree with my assessment (and, by the way, you have every right to challenge my assessment) does not mean I have no right to such an assessment.

    Here are other examples of what you requested: recreational use of cocaine, internet pornography, breaking the speed limit, or video gambling.

  50. “…the example of an abortion identifies a practice that comes into direct conflict with your interpretation of scores of passages…”

    There, fixed that for you. And you recognize that your appeal to the number of Christians (you think) agree with your interpretation and application is a violation of your version of Sola Scriptura, right?

  51. Clear biblical truths directly relatable to modern applications…

    Abortion: Psalm 51:5; Psalm 139:13-16; Luke 1:41, just to name a few…which then brings into effect all passages concerning murder (the intentional termination of a human life).

    Recreational use of cocaine: Ephesians 5:18 (be only under the influence of the Holy Spirit), and a host of verses concerning being alert and soberminded (1 Cor 15:34; 1 Thes 5:4-8; 2 Tim 4:5; 1 Pet 1:13; 4:7; 5:8, to name a few)

    Internet pornography: well, Matthew 5:28 seems pretty clear, not to mention “πορνεια” (“porneia”) having been used throughout the NT in prohibitions. It’s being on the internet today hardly seems a leap, but instead (like these others) direct applications.

    Breaking the speed limit: It’s a law, so…Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-17.

    Video gambling: I’m not sure what video gambling is, but gambling (although a less direct line of application than all of the above) would seem to conflict with the many passages related to stewardship, covetousness, work ethic, and greed.

    Each of the above examples you gave are direct applications from clearly relatable texts that are (for some quite frequently) given in scripture. I cannot speak for everyone out there, but my applications for each of the above are held strictly on a biblical foundation.
    On the other hand, scripture does not seem to have even general principles related to musical style. Please try to empathize with those of us to understand why we genuinely cannot see that these conclusions related to stylistic matters follow from the biblical evidence. It’s not because we’re “not eager to learn” or because we’re closed to the evidence. We truly want to honor and glorify God with our entire beings, but want to be careful not to impose extra-biblical standards of morality – for that would be a dangers thing for which we would be held accountable.

  52. David, what Christians do you know who interpret Psalm 51:5 and Psalm 139:13-16 from a “pro-choice” perspective? Please answer this, because it’s an important point.

    My suggestion that stylistic preferences (or prohibitions for that matter) are subjective does not stem from the notion that biblical interpretations are all subjective. I would not want any of us to argue the utter subjectivity and relative nature of biblical interpretation.

    The point, David, is that while every Christian I have ever known (who by being Christians have the interpretive aid of the Holy Spirit) upon reading Psalm 51:5 or Psalm 139:13-16 cannot argue that the unborn child does not have a life. There is not another interpretive alternative to consider in light of the text.
    But many, many Christians fail to follow the interpretive leaps from general texts on loveliness (for example) to specific prohibitions against particular musical styles. This is quite a different matter altogether, which is why the examples above are less than satisfactory.

  53. Scott and Chris,

    The Apostle Paul says, in Romans 9:1, “I am telling the truth in Christ, I am not lying, my conscience testifies with me in the Holy Spirit”. Perhaps another way of phrasing that is, “The Holy Spirit testifies that what I’m saying is true and holy”, or “My conscience confirms that my heart is right with God, therefore take great heed.” Romans 9:1 is a Scriptural example where a person gives the Holy Spirit and his own conscience as testimony that what he writes is true. Yes, I realize the Apostle Paul’s words are inspired by and breathed by God (II Timothy 3:16) and therefore, as Paul is a Biblical author, what he’s writing is infallibility and completely true because of his authorship. But in Romans 9:1 Paul doesn’t seem to be claiming II Timothy 3:16 in the sense that he’s a Biblical author; what he seems to be claiming is that his conscience confirms what he’s doing is right and true by God and therefore it cannot be disputed, and if it is disputed, the spirit that disputes it is not from above.


  54. Chad, are you asking for their names? Sounds like it. Or just their arguments? Names I don’t feel free to give out.

    “There is not another interpretive alternative to consider in light of the text.”

    Well listen to you. There are people who disagree with that, citing the imagistic and figurative nature of poetry, as well as the fact that David was both born, fully grown, and speaking in the first person, which might indicate what he speaks does not apply to all fertilized eggs.

  55. And just to pile on, Chad, I could cite prominent, serious, conservative Christians who justify viewing nudity in film as well as clouding the issue of homosexuality. You might consider the end of your ways.

  56. David, you enjoy playing devil’s advocate, I see. But we can surely all recognize how fundamentally different one’s hermeneutic would have to be in order to dismiss the otherwise clear teaching of those passages. Can we not agree about that? I really don’t think you’re going to get anywhere by arguing that biblical truth is entirely subjective, up to the whims of any interpreter. I know that’s not your point and neither is it mine.

    The point is not that people with a fundamentally different hermeneutic than we likely share twist scripture to approve of homosexuality. The point is that applications drawn on musical style are at best a distant leap in comparison to the direct applications Christians can draw concerning each of the examples Scott provided.

    And no, I was not asking for names. It was a question of category. (“What sort of Christians do you know who…?” would have been clearer. Sorry for the confusion.) To argue against the straight forward meaning of Psalm 139 would be possible evidence for lacking spiritual “eyes” (Holy Spirit aid).

  57. Ha! Devil’s advocate. Or Keller’s; or any number of Evangelical’s. Or even that of those emerging from Fundamentalism, or even conservative Evangelicalsim. It’s not as minority as you would have folks believe.

  58. Fair enough, Chad. I know Christians in the OPC who view abortion as adiaphora. Enjoy, bro.

  59. Chad, this is a response to your reply above beginning, “Clear biblical truths directly relatable to modern applications…” I was out of the loop all yesterday afternoon and evening and am just now getting caught up.

    Thank you for a wonderful example of how to take a biblical principle and apply it to a modern issue using logic, common sense, proper interpretive principles, and incorporation of other extra-biblical material. I agree completely with your reasoning and applications.

    But here are a couple important points to recognize about how you went about that:

    1. You and I may think your interpretations, reasonings, and applications are clear and evident, but not all good, conservative Christians necessarily do. Why? Because the passages you cited did not explicitly make the applications that you did, using your own reasoning.

    2. Do you not recognize that in every case, you employed a second step in taking clear biblical revelation and drawing a conclusion for a contemporary situation the Bible does not address explicitly?

    Let’s just take one example: You interpret Ephesians 5:18 to say that we should be only under the influence of the Holy Spirit. Clear enough. But then you had to take a second step in order to classify cocaine as something that breaks the command. How did you know that cocaine breaks the command? What would you say to someone who says that he is perfectly in control when he uses? Does the Bible say anywhere that cocaine controls us to the degree that the Holy Spirit cannot?

    No, you used your knowledge of what cocaine is and what it does, drawn from extra biblical experience, expertise, and other sources of information, to make a perfectly logical application of Ephesians 5:18 to cocaine use. In other words, you employed the following standard syllogism formula:

    1. Whatever controls us apart from the Holy Spirit is sin.

    2. Cocaine controls us.

    3. Therefore, cocaine is sin.

    As I said, I think this is a perfectly logical application of the text. But you have to recognize that while it is founded firmly on the authority of Scripture in your first premise, your second premise is entirely extra-biblical.

    This is exactly what we must do as Christians. The Bible was not meant to address each and every situation we face. But this does not make it insufficient. Rather, it addresses absolutely everything we face principially, and it is up to mature Christians to actively apply the Bible’s all-sufficient and authoritative principles to contemporary issues the Bible does not address using sound logic and understanding of the issue under consideration.

    So… here are some clear biblical truths directly relating to modern applications regarding music:

    Eph 4:29 – Let no corrupt communication proceed out of your mouth, but that which is good to the use of edifying, that it may minister grace unto the hearers.

    Heb 12:28-29 – Let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire.

    Phil 4:8 – Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.

    Gal 5:19-24 – Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.

    Rom 12:2 – Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.

    Just to name a few off the top of my head.

  60. Thanks for your thoughtful reply, Scott. I recognize that modern applications require us to biblically “reason,” but the further modern applications get from the original commands of the text, the less dogmatic we can be when communicating them to others. That is why, for instance, the issue of alcohol consumption alone is more difficult to prohibit than an obvious manifestation of drunkenness. (We probably don’t need to get into that one, though, folks.) This is also why gambling was, I think, the best example you gave above, even though scripture still has much to say about sins that come relatively close to the practice of gambling (greed, stewardship, work ethic, covetousness).

    I would simply ask if the scientifically verifiable consequences the cocaine addict faces (which come into clear conflict with Ephesians 5:18) are more apparent than the effects of certain musical styles. Or if the correlation of the texts you mentioned above to specific musical styles are as directly relatable as to what Eph 5:18 has to say to the cocaine addict? In other words, my objection is not that modern applications require the bridging of truth from the biblical world to the modern day in which we live (which obviously involves the task of understanding our current world), but with concerns to the extent to which one can leap in making the assertion that said texts are relatable.

    We can watch a cocaine addict sin as he comes under the control of the drug, but can we honestly say that we can similarly watch someone sin simply by listening to Lecrae’s “Don’t Waste Your Life” (though a style I personally don’t enjoy…at all), since according to you the style appears to be a “corrupt [form of] communication” (Eph 4:29), an irreverent musical style in which to worship God (Heb 12:28-29), a dishonorable, impure, unlovely, not excellent, and unworthy of praise style of music (Phil 4:8), fleshly style, devoid of the Holy Spirit (Gal 5:19-24), which by not being stylistically different from what many worldly people listen to has thereby conformed to the sinful spirit of the age (Romans 12:2)?

    Please tell me that you can at least understand why discerning Christians who aspire to living holy lives before God (and who are neither eager to defend “Christian Rock” nor sympathetic toward Enlightened rationalism) cannot see the as objectively your correlation of the aforementioned texts to musical styles as they can see Matthew 5:28’s relating to pornography in the internet age. (?)

  61. Chad,

    “Scientifically verifiable” is only authoritative if you are sympathetic toward Enlightenment rationalism.

    Also, you seem to want binary, easily-recognizable categories. Black hats for these scoundrels, white hats for these; ostensibly so that you can warn your people, but likely because that’s the only way you can be sure.

    It’s not that simple, as you should know from the theological discussions surrounding the doctrine of total depravity. Not everything tainted with human depravity is equally tainted with human depravity.

    [Here’s where I anticipate a sturdy helping of tu quoque.]

    So to read from Scott’s use of particular Scriptures that all rap is as depraved as can be is just… shallow.

  62. Hey, Chad. Thanks for the reply.

    I fully agree with you that the further we get from the actual intent of the text, the less certain we can be. Absolutely. I would simply note that this doesn’t mean we cannot have any certainty in such cases, and in fact we do this kind of application many, many more times than most people want to acknowledge.

    In fact, I would suggest that the very point of Romans 12:2 is that there are many cases in which the Bible does not tell us the will of God on a matter, but we can indeed “prove” the certain will of God when we avoid being conformed to this world and when we offer our bodies as living sacrifices to God.

    And actually, I am not saying that discerning musical meaning is just as “scientifically” certain as discerning how the Bible applies to abortion, gambling, cocaine use, etc. What I am saying is that applying the Bible to those issues is actually not as “scientifically” obvious as you would like to assume. I am arguing that neither are very simple, black-and-white, or “scientific.” But that doesn’t mean we can just throw up our hands and do whatever we please.

    So I think we’ve made some ground here, and I’m thankful for that.

    As to your question about the validity of comparing cocaine use to music, I would certainly agree with you that they are different. But actually, I would suggest that we can discern music’s meaning and effects in very similar ways to the effects of cocaine.

    For example, examining where certain forms of music came from gives us a pretty good indication of their inherent meaning. There is a reason Christian values have produced particular musical forms, Satanic worship others, desire for free and open sexuality others, and anti-establishment cultural rebellion yet others.

    Also, we can observe where certain musical forms are most often employed and with what they are most often associated. You brought up Lecrae. Even the most godly Christian rapper will acknowledge that hip hop is most often associated with misogyny, denigration of women, drug abuse, and rebellion. They will acknowledge the roots of such music, and that must account for something.

    There is a reason certain kinds of music are played at funerals and not football games (and vice versa). It is because music has inherent, natural meaning. There is a reason certain forms of music are played in a strip club and Mozart is not. There are reasons film composers choose particular musical expressions to communicate moods universally across time and culture.

    Next, we can also observe music’s effects just like with cocaine. Play a march in a room full of children and see what happens. Examine the life of someone whose diet is heavy metal. Notice the affects certain kinds of music have on a room. There is much research and settled science behind this, by the way. There is a reason certain kinds of music are played in department stores and restaurants: they were chosen based on researching the effects they have on the shoppers and diners.

    Finally, I can give attention to the millennial of philosophers, theologians, and musicologists from Pythagoras to Plato to Chrysostom to Augustine to Boethius to Aquinas to Luther to Calvin to Edwards and beyond who have unanimously agreed that music is moral and can affect us. Historically speaking, the idea that music means nothing universally outside itself only dominated in philosophical fields for about 100 years, and only because to believe in universals is to acknowledge God. Even contemporary secular musicologists have come to admit that musical meaning, at least on one level, is universal.

    Among Christians, it has only been for about the last 40 years or so that some have denied universal meaning in music because Christians wanted to defend using rock in the church.

    But yes, I can completely understand why otherwise discerning, godly Christians don’t readily recognize this. They have been reared in a church culture that doesn’t want to recognize it, because to do so would be to denounce the music that they love.

  63. That is very helpful perspective, Scott. As for me, I was reared in a church that emphasized (perhaps more than anything else) music standards. My response has not been to throw all standards out the window, but to test the merits of this argumentation I grew up with from a purely scriptural standard. As you can tell from our exchange the last couple of days, this investigation caused me to be more and more hesitant to insist on particular styles being morally honorable while others inherently depraved. Chris, on the other hand seems to be coming from the complete opposite perspective. I can certainly understand how an emphasis away from charismatic ideology would be attractive to him.

    As for Romans 12:2, I think the very point Paul is making at the end of the verse helps us avoid calling something “worldly” simply because it happens to be done/used/created by people who themselves are worldly. It seems the very point he is making is that we must ensure that we are being transformed (passive imperative of μεταμορφόω) by renewing our mind daily through scripture (cf. 2 Cor 3:18), by which we can “test” all things and discern the will of God. We know that faithfulness to God does not require an Amish lifestyle, which we further know to be a misled and doctrinally heretical view of the Christian life. (I’m not equating your standards with being Amish, btw!)

    Your views do intrigue me, as they’re certainly articulated with a more scholarly perspective than those with which I was raised. Reading around on your website, I wonder if one of my primary questions wasn’t answered. Correct me if I’m taking this passage of yours the wrong way…

    “Significant doctrinal differences are certainly more serious than differences of cultural philosophy. But I would argue that differences of philosophy of culture are more dangerous because they are more subtle. Allow me to explain. If someone in my congregation is exposed to an argument for infant baptism or the continuation of sign gifts, I can fairly easily point him to exegetical and theological reasons we do not hold to such doctrines. But if someone in my congregation is exposed to sacred music that is fleshly, it is much more difficult to demonstrate why that music is fleshly because expression of abstract emotion (that’s what music is) is difficult to articulate.” (“Is Music a Separation Issue,” p. 7)

    What I’m reading you to say (besides the limiting nature of philosophy of culture differences) is that the morality of musical styles are more dangerous to your flock because you cannot argue them from scripture as directly. They are difficult to articulate objectively, even though they are important enough to communicate dogmatically. It is more important to shelter them away from contemporary Christian music than pedobaptism because the latter can be refuted biblically.

    If the above observation I’m drawing isn’t unfair, it highlights the point I’ve been trying to make about one’s ability to far more objectively reason from scripture certain modern applications than the leaps of application concerning musical style.

    Also, I have no problem with the notion that musical styles can influence our emotions. It would be futile to argue otherwise. But how can we say that such an emotion is sinful? Can music give us morally righteous emotions? Does the techno music (that a night club uses) inherently communicate on its own a morally evil message? (I know you would say it does, but many of us cannot see that?) If so, what evil emotion would that be? Certainly many may perform dance moves that would be dishonorable – and with partners not their own spouses, but where those expressions separate products of culture or were they inevitably birthed from the musical style itself? These are questions I continue to stumble over.

    I do, however, want to extend my sincere gratitude to you for the dialogue, and for seeing the difference between honest questions and important debate as separate from “trolling,” which I was accused by another of doing. Your time is much appreciated. I am happy to continue dialoging on this comment thread if you find it helpful, continuing it elsewhere, or ending it at any time.

  64. “So to read from Scott’s use of particular Scriptures that all rap is as depraved as can be is just… shallow.”

    Chris, I used rap in the illustration simply because Scott had referenced it in a previous comment yesterday afternoon:

    “I (and many others) happen to believe that rap, for example, comes into direct conflict with scores of passages of Scripture.”

    …which he further explained in his last comment above. I wanted to make sure I was using an example that would fit his criteria of a style that is depraved.

  65. And Scott, when you mention that some music endorses “anti-establishment cultural rebellion,” I immediately start trying to think of what sort of soundtrack Sarah Palin-loving, Donald Trump supporters prefer. ;)

  66. Why, Country-Western, of course. :)

    Seriously, I appreciate the time you have taken to interact, and I sincerely hope you will come back often and comment on things we post here.

  67. Chad,

    Forgive me for overstating my case.

    My point was (and still is) that ‘depraved,’ ‘evil,’ and even ‘good’ are all terms on a scale. They are not absolute, discrete categories when it comes to the works of men. For example, when Shai Linne uses rap to denounce false teachers, I don’t think he’s nearly as far off as when he tries to use it to teach amillennialism. Neither, in my estimation, is the best way to do it; but the form is more appropriate for the one than the other. Rap is very effective for denunciation. And self-aggrandizement.

  68. Hi Scott,
    apologies for commenting on this already very long thread, but as you might have guessed, I find the temptation to chime in irresistible, also given that in my mind, our previous exchanges on this topic have remained inconclusive or unfinished. As briefly as I can:

    1. Let’s agree music is not neutral. It clearly impacts the message, and can even give completely different and opposing meanings to the same. The question is whether we should say music is moral.

    2. In your original post above, you first claim that music is human communication as opposed to a thing (which I usually call an artifact), but then go on to compare it to meat (spoiled or healthy), which is clearly a thing (albeit not a human artifact). Is this not self-contradictory?

    3. You also say in one of your comments that music can be either morally good or bad (but not neutral). I argue that something that can either be good or bad must necessarily be neutral. Only human usage and its embeddedness in a given context can be of moral quality. That music can be used both ways (if I understood you correctly, the same music could be either good or bad – or at least, I believe I could defend such a claim) then music itself cannot be moral.

    4. Music without words does not make any claims. As such, I find it difficult to call it human communication. Chad quoted you above, “it is much more difficult to demonstrate why that music is fleshly because expression of abstract emotion (that’s what music is) is difficult to articulate.” If music is an expression of emotion (and I agree that it is) then how is it moral? Emotions by themselves are human, but only morally relevant in a given context (hatred for sin is morally good; hatred of a person is morally wrong). Your example of how someone says, I love you comes to mind: the words combined with the way they are expressed (which in turn reflects the emotions expressed in these words) take on different meanings. Likewise, music can shape lyrics. I’d agree that rap misshapes lyrics trying to teach amillennialism. But that is a matter of appropriateness and fittingness, not one of morality. Shai will simply have a much harder time teaching his ideas than if he were simply to teach them outside the rap format, since the latter distorts the ideas and is otherwise less appropriate for teaching than the spoken word. But where is his sin?

    All this to say, I share Chad’s discomfort with calling styles sinful, rather than appropriate (or not). As you already knew.

  69. Quickly to add here on the parallel post on Music and Communication (, I’d submit that music only conveys emotion, as that article also states at the end. But emotion is neutral without context. That context is provided by the lyrics. Without lyrics, music does not communicate anything propositional. My case is that it is part of communication, but is not itself (moral) communication. It shapes communication just as the tone in which I say something but more is required than music for human, moral communication to occur.

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