Music and Morality

November 2016 Pulse

In February this year (2016), Pop Queen Madonna held her controversial Rebel Heart concert in Singapore amidst concerns expressed by religious groups.

In his pastoral letter, Roman Catholic Archbishop William Goh urges his 300,000 strong flock not to support ‘pseudo-arts that promote sensuality, rebellion, disrespect, pornography, contamination of the mind of the young, abusive freedom, individualism at the expense of the common good, vulgarity, lies and half-truths’.

The influence of modern pop and rock music on society and culture is a question which scholars – philosophers, theologians and sociologists – have been debating for quite some time. Although a consensus on the extent of music’s impact has not been reached, many are of the view that music does in some ways influence society.

The educational uses of music are, of course, already quite well documented. Children find it much easier to learn the alphabet if it is set to a song. This raises an important question: if children can be taught the alphabet or how to read through music, can they be taught what is right and wrong through the same medium?

To help us to reflect on these questions, we turn to the writings of two of the most eminent philosophers of Greek antiquity – Plato and Aristotle. What they have to say on this important subject is not only enlightening, but also surprisingly relevant.

Plato believes that far from being morally benign or neutral music has a profound if subtle ability to sway its listeners either positively or negatively. Thus, in The Republic Plato argues that music can be subversive and that certain kinds (or ‘modes’) of music can even engender a spirit of lawlessness.

The persuasive nature of music, Plato maintains, its ability not only to arouse particular emotions but also to habituate them, means that it can even shape the character of its listeners.

Now, the claim that certain forms of music produce certain effects in the listener is hardly controversial. It is obvious that listening to the Gregorian Chant and to Metallica’s ‘Creeping Death’ produce quite different effects in the listener.

But can listening to music mould the character of the listener (for the worse), as Plato claims? And if it can, how does it do this?

Rock music may influence the character of its listener – especially its teenage and young listeners – by the subtle and sometimes not so subtle messages it conveys through its lyrics but also through the sensibilities it generates.

Laced as it often is with themes of anger, frustration and self-indulgence, rock music presents the message of anarchy that is often very appealing to young people. For example, heavy metal contains such toxic messages of hatred against parents that it is sometimes described as music to kill your parents by.

But rock also urges the view that all social conventions and values must be overturned: nothing is sacred. A good example of this is Madonna, who throughout her career has attempted to desacralize sex and vulgarise (and even pornify) Christianity, especially its Roman Catholic variety.

Rock does not do this only with its provocative and damning lyrics. It does this by the music itself.

Here is where what our next philosopher, Aristotle, has to say about music is instructive.

According to Aristotle, music works on the will and the soul through representation. By this he means that music directly represents certain passions or emotional states such that by listening to certain types of music certain passions – courage and temperance or anger and rebellion – may be aroused.

Rock often arouses anger, angst and rebellion in the listener. As one commentator puts it, ‘One of the things that rock and the rock industry do best is to take normal adolescent frustration and rebellion and heat it up to boiling point’.

As Aristotle has taught us, we are not dealing here only with the lyrics but the whole emotional arc that the music creates. As (re-)presentational rather than discursive language, music abstracts feelings from lived experiences and impresses them powerfully on the listener.

As John Dewey has put it, ‘Music, having sound as its medium … expresses in a concentrated way the shocks and instabilities, the conflicts and resolutions, that are the dramatic changes enacted upon the more enduring background of nature and human life’.

That is why Plato emphasises the importance of proper education in music. ‘Education in music’ he writes, ‘is most sovereign because more than anything else rhythm and harmony find their way to the inmost soul and take strongest hold of it’.

What sort of music, then, would contribute to the healthy moral development of an individual?

To answer this question would require another article. But briefly put, it is music that is wholesome, music that celebrates the good and the beautiful and music that tells the truth. It is music that is firmly rooted in a community, music that tells a story that captures the profoundest human experiences and emotions, and music that has stood the test of time.

We find such qualities in the music of Bach, Mozart and Handel. We also find them in varying degrees in Joan Baez’s ‘Barbara Allen’, in spirituals such as ‘Go Down, Moses’ and in ballads like Paul Simon’s and Art Garfunkel’s ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’.

In his letter to the Church at Philippi, the Apostle Paul writes: ‘whatever is true, whatever is honourable, 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’ (Philippians 4:8).

These qualities are of paramount importance to good music, music that will form its listeners into people of virtue and substance.


Roland Chia (suit)_Large
Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor for the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.