What Is Good Music?

MANY times parents are led to commit them selves for or against something, and then find out that there are strong arguments against the position that they have taken. We frequently face this problem in connection with radio and TV programs or certain musical selections. Because few things in this life do not have some good in them, the categorization of, for example, a musical number into a "good" or a "wicked" number may be treacherous because of various aspects involved. . .

-Research Professor of Medicine at Loma Linda University School of Medicine at the time this article was written

MANY times parents are led to commit them selves for or against something, and then find out that there are strong arguments against the position that they have taken. We frequently face this problem in connection with radio and TV programs or certain musical selections. Because few things in this life do not have some good in them, the categorization of, for example, a musical number into a "good" or a "wicked" number may be treacherous because of various aspects involved.

Most serious adult and young Christians sense that the devil has music that differs from the music of heaven. Our problem in this regard is to know how to tell the worthwhile and safe things in this life from those that attract us away from God. Inasmuch as God does not give us an index of banned songs, how can we know what is pleasing or dis pleasing to God?

It would appear that in this area as in so many other areas of life God has given us guideline principles that He expects us to search out and follow under the guidance of His Spirit. In my study of this subject I have noted with special interest several quotations that give clues to the principles of the music that heavenly beings appreciate. Four of these are quoted below:

Good singing is like the music of the birds subdued and melodious. . . . The long-drawn-out notes and the peculiar sounds common in operatic singing are not pleasing to the an gels. They delight to hear the simple songs of praise sung in a natural tone. --Evangelism, p. 510.

The sound of these happy, unrestrained voices was an offense to the rulers of the temple. . . . They [priests and rulers] represented to the people that the house of Cod was desecrated by the feet of the children and the shouts of rejoicing. --The Desire of Ages, p. 592.

Satan will make music a snare by the way in which it is conducted. --Selected Messages, book 2, p. 38. (Italics supplied.)

Solemn responsibilities rest upon the young, which they lightly regard. The introduction of music into their homes, instead of in citing to holiness and spirituality, has been the means of diverting their minds from the truth. Frivolous songs and the popular sheet music of the day seem congenial to their taste. . . . Music, when not abused, is a great blessing; but when put to a wrong use, it is a terrible curse. It excites, but does not impart that strength and courage which the Christian can find only at the throne of grace. ... He [Satan] is a skillful charmer, luring them [the youth] on to perdition. --Testimonies, vol. 1, p. 497.

I am in the age group that is in danger of rejecting anything new merely because it is new or different. The older a person gets the more memory pathways he has with which to reminisce. In these memory pathways are old songs, old concepts, and former ways of doing things. Sometimes age tends to produce a halo about the past. Consciously, I do not want to reject or accept the past or the present be cause it is either cherished age or modern.

While recognizing the bias of training and habit, let us analyze the parts of music individually in an effort to grade it. At times it pays to be a splitter rather than a lumper in the field of learning so that the parts of a whole can be examined separately, in depth, before putting it together to see how it functions as an entity. For additional clarity, I shall speak from a diagram. (See diagram.)

It seems to me that we should be able to classify music into three categories and consider it from the basis of seven aspects. Perhaps the number of categories and aspects might be increased, decreased, or renamed, depending on one's training, but this classification has been helpful to me in grading music. With a diagram such as this for each song we should be able to determine where it would or would not be acceptable and proper to perform.

I would prefer not to leave room for personal bias. In this, as in all things of this life, we should court a conscience that is under the direction and education of the Holy Spirit. Ideally, the grading should be as God sees things. Practically, we must use sanctified reasoning from a noncombatant stance with an aim to prefer others before ourselves and avoid things that are disagreeable or are stumbling blocks to those who may be ahead or behind us in the Christian path.

The Three Categories

The three categories for classification should be necessary because there are spiritual things and there are two types of common things. Some of the common things of life are not bad in themselves. Only if harmless common things are used to excess or if they become idols would they be detrimental to us. On the other hand, there are some common things that are evil and degrading.

By way of illustration of the categories let us consider one occupation. The work of a carpenter can be a blessing when done to help others and build something worthwhile. Nevertheless, it is not proper to set up a carpenter shop in a dedicated church of Cod and run a hammer and saw on the Sabbath. The same thing applies to common musical programs. They may be good in their place. Further than this, common music or sacred, just as carpentry work, can be used to serve the devil.

The requirement is more than good motives, important as they are. Things must be done right, God's way, to be acceptable to Him.

The Seven Aspects of Music

The Melody. It is by the note or chord sequence, the melody of a song, more than by any other aspect that we remember and distinguish one piece of music from another. Melody is the fingerprint of music. It may be distorted a bit by the tempo or by keyboard runs, but the melody still identifies the number. You may change the words or the instrument on which it is played, yet it can be recognized. Once a piece of music has been written with a set of words to it, those who have heard renditions of it will mentally associate the words, the melody, the tempo, the instrument, and the performer. They will associate it with a certain environment and consciously or unconsciously categorize it. That melody has a copyright on the category of music with those words. It belongs there by mental association.

To illustrate this point let us make some assumptions. Suppose that you have a congregation that is quite familiar with the common song "Home on the Range" and also with the hymn "Holy, Holy, Holy." Let us also suppose that the words of that hymn would fit musically with the music of "Home on the Range." Now, if someone who is very familiar with the words of "Home on the Range" sung to its own melody were to hear instead the words of "Holy, Holy, Holy" sung to that melody he would have a disturbed mental reaction. This would happen even though the singer was a dedicated Christian and was accompanied sedately by a pipe organ. On the other hand, someone who had never heard "Home on the Range" would have no such mental association pathways and could receive a blessing from the rendition.

In other words, the factors that determine the category a particular song should be placed in are, to a certain extent, determined by the environment or background from which the melody was taken, and this is determined by whether the audience has heard it or not. It might be out of taste to substitute the words; it would be mixing the sacred with the common in the minds of an audience in one part of the world, and yet not be so to someone in another locality who has never heard the melody before. Let me make one more point about melody. There are certain kinds of classical music that are hard for me to enjoy. I refer to the sort in which the chord or note sequences do not form a melodious pattern but are disjointed bouts of tones unrelated to each other.

Such music is analogous to modern painting. One sees on the easel a conglomerate of shades and hues. To be sure there are splashes of color, but they are not organized to present a picture. In order to know what the artist had in mind one must accept the word of the artist or a highly imaginative interpreter. I doubt that this type of music will represent a moral problem. It cannot create dissipation any more than the splotches by the modern artist can portray pornography. On the other hand, how can it present a clear spiritual lesson?

Music is more than a series of rock 'n' roll sonic booms played on and on until the musicians tire. It is more than instrumental gymnastic exercises with a label "classical music" attached. It should be melodious.

Tempo or Beat. There probably is no other aspect of a song that can cause so much disagreement among Christians as the tempo or beat of a musical piece. The younger generation inclines toward a tempo that will entice the participation of the physical body with the mental processes and the spiritual nature. It appears to me that a good hymn can be made either spiritually moving or physically moving, depending on the tempo. The criteria then become a bit clearer. Does the musician by the tempo aim to edify his audience, or does he want to foster physical demonstrations by the audience? Physical demonstrations stimulated by the manner in which a song is played might be appropriate under some circumstances, but foot tapping, clapping, shouting, and dancing are not appropriate in a church.

Words. Words to a melody are not always needed to cotivey a spiritual blessing. On the other hand, many hymns began as poems. The melody came to the musical writer after he heard the words. For a Seventh-day Adventist the words should be made to convey the truth. Sometimes it is wise to rephrase the words of a hymn so that Adventism, instead of apostate Protestantism, is taught by the song. Personally, if I am not permitted to change the words to correct the doctrinal error I would be inclined to select another song, for how can I praise God by singing a known falsehood? Ideally, good words for a hymn will express a depth of meaning that encourages one to appreciate and love God more. They should be more than shallow, nonsensical, hackneyed ecumenical phrases. They should create a desire for inner purity, peace, and holiness; not act as a temporary spiritual distraction or a pacifier.

Those who have studied the words of some rock 'n' roll music point out the danger of the words in such songs. The words range all the way from filthy or sensually provocative phrases to discouraging phrases suggesting suicide or narcotics. How can we condone such as that?

Instrument. The sort of musical instrument that will be used to perform the piece is important to an extent. Some people fail to get a blessing from the words or music of a hymn because the accompanying instrument is a guitar. Perhaps with sufficient time the guitar, the banjo, and the steel guitar may not be associated mentally with honky-tonks, with rock 'n' roll, or with hippie culture, but it would seem to take a while yet.

Here is an area in which education of a congregation could help. They should be led to try to consider the music, the words, the way in which it is rendered, and be less apprehensive about the kind of instrument that is used. A little give-and-take by those on both sides of this issue would be helpful. However, to the musicians I would say, It is not fair to the audience for artists to ignore the background scruples of other souls. Why cannot we "prefer one another" in this regard so that all may receive a blessing?

Performing Artists. It helps me a great deal when listening to a sacred piece of music to know that the musicians have dedicated their lives to God and live according to their profession. After all, the part that the musician plays in church is called ministry. I would not feel comfortable, regardless of the manner in which the music was played, if the musicians playing a hymn were popular worldly musicians of the sort that boisterously live in perversion and immorality. Their life-style keeps coming into mind during the playing, and interferes with the blessing I should get.

Kind of Program. It would seem obvious that the musical selection and the instrument should be appropriate for the occasion. There is a place for comedy and fun, but we should be careful not to mix the common with the sacred.

God is holy. Angels veil their faces before Him. Services dedicated to Him should be the best that we have to offer with our facilities and talents. In primitive tribes musical instruments may be simple, but they should be the best available. Offering God the best is what He appreciates. Elaborate instruments of civilized society most likely sound as raucous to heavenly beings as the instruments savages play sound to us, but knowing this fact should not lead us to perform in a slovenly way on ill-kept instruments. We should strive to do our best.

Manner of Presentation. Let us go back to the four quotations given in the introduction. The emphasis of the first and third statements is on the manner that the music is presented. Many times secular entertainers present a musical piece to call attention to their capabilities as vocalists or their technical agility and finesse as instrumentalists. There are others who by their body motion draw attention to their physique or charms. Some body motions are more than innocent body twists; they are designed to incite thoughts of sexual immorality.

A godly, unselfish musician would present a musical number humbly to produce joy and happiness from the music, not to draw attention to his performance. The Christian musician should by all means try to avoid attracting attention to himself, but, rather, by his selection of music and his manner of rendition, direct the listener unconsciously to the message and the Person who is the object of his ministry in music.

In summary, I believe we should examine the music in our churches, schools, and homes and the background music we play in our hospitals and other institutions on the basis of at least these seven aspects. We who love the Lord should be a light to guide the world. We should unite to frown down (see Selected Messages, book 2, p. 29) the objectionable aspects of music and encourage good music appropriate for the occasion.

Perhaps one way to guide us in our decision on music for an occasion would be to ask several questions such as these: What is that music usually associated with? Where does it have its origin? Did it originate in the barroom? Was it designed for the dance hall? Is it associated with drug- and sex-oriented rock festivals?

Before the age of Victrolas, radio, and television, home entertainment revolved around homemade folk music. Many of these songs tell innocent tales. Their origin and association make them good in their place. Others are no better than some operas with their atrocities.

Relating a piece of music to its environment or association is needful, because this is what will happen within the minds of the listeners. The answer is this: Do you, a musician or a broadcaster, want your audience to think that you approve of the dance hall, barroom, or hippie culture or do you want to turn their minds to innocent pleasures or spiritual things?

The rule of guilt or innocence by association cannot be freely followed, for we see a new aspect. In the past few years many strange activities have been seen on the platforms of some major churches in America. In essence they are saying, "Anything goes." Beware. Babylon is falling!

In the last days Satan will try to get each person to do his own thing. He wants each individual to be the judge of his own activities. He would lead us to believe that standards are of no value. He directs our thoughts in the line that whatever is, is right. He wants us to think that a thing is right merely because it exists or can be done. (See The Great Controversy, pp. 554, 555.) He wants to blur the distinction between the sacred and the common.

We must seek God to enlighten us so that proper guidelines can be established. We should plan in all functions, musical or whatever, to please Him. We cannot do things as the people about us do. Even though God did not condemn the Philis tines for hauling the ark of God on a cart, David could not do it as they did. We as God's children who have received greater light must come up to the standard that God has given us. And His standards are not grievous. They lead to inward calmness, peace, and happiness.

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-Research Professor of Medicine at Loma Linda University School of Medicine at the time this article was written

April 1973

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