Is there such a thing as “Christian” music?

Vince Treadway, ACM Founder

I am not talking about the lyrics that are sung with music. I am talking about the music itself; the notes, melodies, harmonies and rhythms. Does the music alone carry any morality, or is music without lyrics neutral?

Try taking a step back from what you know and like, and from any associations you make with music because of lyrics, and you will find answering the question challenging. Try looking at music from a global viewpoint with all of its permutations including cultural, ethnic, and regional traditions (again, remember no lyrics) and take into account time boundaries, and the question becomes even more difficult to answer.

Would you have the same opinion about the music you now consider “Christian” if you had been born in another continent or in a completely different region of your country? Maybe not. Do you think that the musicians from 500 years ago would consider what they would hear in today’s churches “Christian,” if they could travel through time? Probably not. Do you think that you can take any music and put “Christian” lyrics with it, and make it “Christian?” Is it then the lyrics that lend morality to the music, or does the music carry intrinsic moral value too?

There are some who believe that any morality that is assigned to music (without lyrics) is entirely cultural and governed by that to which one has been is exposed. Harold Best, Dean Emeritus of Wheaton College Conservatory of Music, states in his book, Music Through the Eyes of Faith:

…I take the position that, with certain exceptions, art and especially music are morally relative and inherently incapable of articulating, for want of a better term, truth speech. They are essentially neutral in their ability to express belief, creed, moral and ethical exactitudes, or even worldview.1

Church musicians and some church fathers from hundreds of years ago certainly thought music had morality.2 In fact, they assigned moral qualities to sounds, and some sounds were forbidden in church.3

Some intervals, for example (the distance between two notes) were labeled “licentious,” or “producing melancholy” and were therefore considered inappropriate for use in worship. That is part of the reason that for many years the only music sung in church was chant: a single (melody) note at a time with no harmony. No instruments were allowed; only unison vocal music was used.

John Calvin believed that music had the power “to distort and disfigure the human heart”4 and was “fraught with moral gravity.” Because of this conviction about the power of music, Calvin only allowed music that he deemed was “set apart” from the world and exhibited “an aesthetic of gravity and majesty befitting the sacred worship of our Lord.”5

In 1525, Ulrich Zwingli disallowed any music in the church in Zurich. The use of music in that church did not return until 1598 because of his conviction that music had the power to effect morals negatively.6 As years passed simple harmonies were allowed in the church, and later instruments were introduced.

One might argue that the assignment of any moral distinction to a sound is purely subjective, and would not be considered very scientific today. After all, doesn’t music affect different people in different ways? Before you answer that question, consider the effect that music has on behavior.

You may recall the Biblical account of the effect that David’s playing of the harp had on Saul.7 Scripture says that when David played his lyre for Saul, he “was refreshed and was well, and the evil spirit departed from him.” Did you know that many universities offer degrees in Music Therapy today, and that the effect of music on mental health,8 behavior, body movement, and physical health is scientifically documented?9 Did you know that music is used in operating rooms to increase the speed of healing and reduce the need for pain medications?

I have a friend who is a harpist who regularly goes into operating rooms of hospitals to play her harp during surgery as a Music Therapist. The power of music is undeniable! Have you noticed how people behave when certain music is played, and what form their movements take? Would you attach any “morality” to the behavior that music produces?

Enter a room full of children and without giving any instruction to them begin to play different kinds of music and watch what happens. They will react naturally to the music. Continue the music for long periods of time, and different kinds of  music will produce different results, including behaviors that are undesirable.10 Several studies have been done that indicate strong connections between music listened to and immoral behavior.11

I believe that music carries intrinsic meaning. I also believe that the intrinsic meaning is amplified with text, although text is not necessary for the meaning to be recognized. Sometimes the meaning of music is subtle, and sometimes it is blatant. Subtlety in music can be found in many different genres, but one example can be found in Faure’s Pavanne.12 This piece suggests peace, tranquility, happiness, and joy in a gentle and kind manner. Examples of blatant meaning are found in heavy metal music that often coarsely conveys anger and futility.13 Consider the power that music has in film scores. Movies would have far less meaning and impact without the music that helps to convey the message.

I believe many of the ideals that I was taught as a child in church were sometimes wrong with regard to music and morality because they were primarily based on personal taste and not on Biblical guidelines or a clear purpose. I have seen the pendulum swing back and forth through the years in church music between what was considered immoral and what was allowed.

One complicating factor is that many people confuse music and lyrics, and have a hard time separating the two. This confusion can bring about a rejection of beautiful music due to bad lyrics, and inversely can cause rejection of useful lyrics because of a poor musical setting. People also sometimes label music they are unfamiliar with or uncomfortable with as “immoral,” when in reality they just don’t like it or understand it.

I recall a situation in my home church as a child that a particular song with a tune from an opera (all opera was considered evil and licentious in that church) was prohibited to be sung even though the text was sacred and the music beautiful and dignified. But today that same church uses a rock band in their worship services!

In some cases it would be better to say that certain kinds of music are inappropriate for worship, rather than immoral. One might argue that if music is inappropriate for worship and it is used, that in itself is immoral. That judgment might depend upon the motives of the person(s) who selected the music. It may be that the appropriateness of the music for worship was not considered, or that the person who selected the music did not have adequate knowledge or experience to make a better choice.

I agree with Calvin in his conviction that the music should serve as a wonderful setting for the text; holding it up and making it clearer, much like a beautiful diamond is enhanced by a lovely setting. When the text becomes subservient to the music however, the music becomes the primary focus rather than the One being worshiped in the text.

If there are no lyrics, then the selection of music for worship becomes much more challenging. Music alone needs to fit the purpose it serves in worship and to be offered with excellence and as an offering of praise. Music alone should draw the worshipers’ attention to God and not to the musician(s) or the music as the primary focus.

I suppose almost every church must wrestle with this issue at some point or another, and perhaps many times over the course of the church’s life. We live in a “global” culture today due to the ready access to music from around the world available on the Internet. This exposure to music from virtually every nation and culture opens up a huge spectrum of music that may not have ever been available in years past, and makes the question of music and “morality” or perhaps “appropriateness” daunting for any church.

Ultimately, I believe that the decision about music and morality (or appropriateness), particularly with regard to its use in church, lies with those in authority in the church, and with the consciences of those who select and make the music. I can assure you that this issue is a daily consideration for me, and one that I take very seriously. I believe that I answer to the Highest Authority on the matter of music that is used in worship, and that I had better be thoroughly convinced that it is worthy of use and appropriate during the most important activity on earth: worship of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ!

It is my hope and my prayer that all who read this article will become more discerning about music in worship, no matter what style or genre of music they prefer, and to honestly assess their attitudes and motives about their worship before God. Our goal should be to honor God in every aspect of our lives, including the music we listen to and worship God with!

1. Harold M. Best, Music Through the Eyes of Faith. (San Francisco: Harper Collins Publishers, 1993) p. 42.      Back

2. See Dodecachordon by Heinrich Glarean (American Institute of Musicology) 1965; and On the Modes by Gioseffo Zarlino from Le Institutioni harmoniche, Part Four (originally published in 1558, translated and edited by Vered Cohen (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1983.)      Back

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4. Cited in L’Esthétique de Calvin by L. Wencelius (Paris:Belles Lettres, 1938) p. 250.      Back

5. Ibid.      Back

6. Calvin, Die Musik in Geschichte und Gegenwart by W. Blankenburg (Kassel und Basel:Barenreiter-Verlag, 1952) 2:653–66.      Back

7. I Samuel 16:14–23      Back

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11. The_effects_of_violent_music_on_children_and_adolescents  IS THIS THE RIGHT LINK???? ASK VINCE     Back

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13. I will not give an example of heavy metal here since many of them are so violent and the texts so vile that I cannot possibly recommend that anyone listen to them. You can find many examples on if you want to investigate them or are unfamiliar with this genre.      Back