What kind of music should we as Christians enjoy? Must all our music be religious? If not, then what types of secular music should we listen to or perform? These are the questions we as ministers and counselors face constantly, not only among young people but also senior members. There are no easy answers to these questions, and there will be differences of opinion when it comes to naming specific pieces. But there are basic principles by which all may be guided in these matters. The Bible states this principle in Matthew 7:17-20: "Even so every good tree bringeth forth good fruit; but a corrupt tree bringeth forth evil fruit. A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit, neither can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit. . . . Wherefore by their fruits ye shall know them." Paul tells us to think on those things that are true, honest, just, pure, lovely, of good report, and "if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things" (Phil. 4:8).
There is wise counsel for ministers and members alike in Section XVII of The Adventist Home. Here the messenger of the Lord deals with relaxation and recreation, and the principles set forth will guide our members in the choice of music. Expressions such as "exciting amusements" and "the desire for excitement" refer to a certain type of amusement that "disqualifies you for secret prayer, for devotion at the altar of prayer, or for taking part in the prayer meeting."
It is not suggested that we shun all secular music, but any kind of music which tends to destroy our love for the better things must be classed as dangerous. There are a number of categories by which we may classify music. The suggestions we set forth here may help in guiding our churches and schools in the choice of the right kind of music.
First, there is the serious or the great music that is widely recognized as being of great artistic worth. We will not try to separate this music into sacred and secular categories. Some of this is suitable for use in church and for performing on the Sabbath. In this class of music of great value we might name symphonies of Beethoven, Brahms, Mozart, Haydn, Schumann, Tchaikovsky, Sibelius; oratorios of Handel, Mendelssohn, Haydn; organ and choral music by Bach and Handel; piano music by Chopin, Schumann, Brahms, Beethoven; songs by Brahms, Schubert, Schumann. (This is not an endorsement of all the music of these composers.)
Second, there is a class of "light" secular music that might include such music as the marches of Sousa, the waltzes of Strauss, and other music of no great depth or great meaning. Here might be classed the music of Jerome Kern, George Gershwin, Gilbert and Sullivan, Rogers and Hammerstein, and many others. Much of this music is skillfully written, and has a large audience appeal. Some of it is definitely of a questionable character. Adventist ministers should be able to give wise guidance in these areas.
Third, there is a class of "light" or sentimental religious music, frequently heard these days because it has a large popular appeal. It is similar in style to the above class of "light" secular music, only it is associated with religious words and therefore usually thought to be religious. Some of the most popular gospel songs fall into this category. We refer to "The Old Rugged Cross," "Ivory Palaces," "In the Garden," "Prayer Perfect," "My Task," and even "The Lord's Prayer" by Mallotte.
There is nothing really wrong with these, but the manner in which they are often performed tends more to the theatrical or secular music. The organ is played with the frequent use of tremolo, vox humana, chimes, and the theatrical tone colors of the modern electronic instruments. The tremolo, vox humana, chimes, and other organ tones are not wrong in themselves, but they are frequently used in bad taste and for sentimental effects that are not in keeping with good religious music.
The theatrical style of playing is often represented by such organists as Jesse Crawford, Lew White, Paul Carson, and George Wright, to name a few. The players are good artists in their field, but they have specialized in what is known as the "theater" organ, and their style of playing is quite different from the "classical" players such as E. Power Biggs, Carl Weinrich, Arthur Poister, Catherine Crozier, Marilyn Mason, and others. The theater organists play a popular kind of sacred music in this theatrical style. This style of playing is widely accepted today among the populace as pleasing to them and therefore as suitable religious music. Trained church musicians reject this style as undignified and unworthy of use in the church.
Fourth, there is a large class of popular music, known under several names, such as jazz, swing, be-bop, dance music, and other classifications. This is the music of the night club, the dance hall, various places of amusement, the radio, and the popular entertainment music of many. It is not difficult to recognize this music, for it is hard these days to avoid it. Our members, young and old, will realize that this type retards spiritual growth.
Fifth, folk music of all kinds, religious as well as secular, is another category. Some of this music is acceptable, but much of it should be rejected because of its subject matter. Music in this class ranges from good to bad. There are beautiful Negro spirituals, white spirituals, and the charming songs of Stephen Foster, to mention only a few on the American scene; and such songs as the old English, Scotch, and Irish ballads. One must carefully discriminate in the area of folk songs to find the real gems.
The problem lies not only in the choice of music but also in the manner in which it is performed. One must have a knowledge of taste and style in order to perform any music in an acceptable way. Scholars have learned much in recent years as to the proper performing style of the composers of various periods in music history. The popular or theatrical style of singing and playing is widely known today in the performance of popular music. There is a crooning style of singing, and there is a definitely recognizable style of popular organ playing. The application of this theatrical style to the religious music of the organ is a mistake, and shows poor taste. There is a style of performance suitable to the music of the church, and this should not be confused with entertainment styles.
Our attitude toward life and toward spiritual things will influence our choice of music. Everything we do should be to the glory of God; it should help us prepare spiritually, mentally, and physically for a better life here and for the life to come. This does not mean that we need to keep our minds continually occupied with religion. It does mean that we will do nothing consciously that will lead us away from God or make us less ready for the kingdom of heaven.
Music that honors God or that makes one a better person, whether it be sacred or secular, is safe for us to enjoy. It is impossible to pass judgment on each piece of music for each person. The development of one's taste and the degree of one's maturity both enter into the decision. For example, one person may realize a great deal of spiritual value from hearing or from performing the Fantasy and Fugue in G Minor by Bach. To another person this music may not make any appeal. In part it may even seem to be noisy and secular. This is owing to a difference in maturity, in taste, and in education. The fault is not with the music.
Just as there are stages of growth in our physical and spiritual life, so there are various stages of development in our understanding and appreciation of music, both secular and religious. Often we forget this, and we think of religious music as having one universal appeal. This is hardly true. Just as there are some parts of the Bible more profound than other parts, and therefore make a greater appeal to mature Christians, so there are hymns and religious music for all stages of growth in musical understanding.
It is well that we learn to enjoy the great hymn tunes, such as "Now Thank We All Our God," "Wake, Awake, for Night Is Flying," the tunes "Dundee," "St. Ann," and the sacred music of Bach, Brahms, and Handel. This music is great because it presents profound musical ideas. It is not trivial or sensational in character. It is not ear-tickling music. It has lasting value, and it must be listened to. It is challenging to us, and it rewards us when we appreciate it.
As individuals we usually think that the music we like, be it secular or sacred, is the best, simply because we like it. We should realize that our personal limitations in musical judgment are not a valid criterion for the standards of others.
We must help our members to realize that everyone makes daily decisions as to which way he is going, whether it be the narrow way to life everlasting or the broad way to destruction. It is not so much a question as to which piece of music one likes, but a question as to which large category of music he is devoting most of his time. Is he on the road toward the enjoyment of the best or is he daily choosing the exciting the trivial, the sensual, the sentimental? Is his taste developing for the best or is he making no effort to improve his taste? In which direction are we helping our members to go? This is the big question. And as leaders we need to take time to think this through.