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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.

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.