Monday, June 3, 2013

A Question for the Readers: What sort of music is appropriate?

Yes, as a matter of fact, I did, in fact, get some leather pants for use in my high school/early college garage band. And no, I'm not embarrassed. Well, except for the cell phone holster that is. 
The Catholic blogosphere is filled with excellent discussion and analysis of what sort of music is appropriate for the liturgy. But that's not what this post is about. What I want to know is what sort of music do you listen to in your home? What sort of music do you expose your kids to? What kind of music do you allow your kids to listen to?

As is the case with liturgical music, we know that chant and classical are objectively greater forms of art than rock, pop, country and other stuff you'll find on the FM dial. But it also doesn't always feel quite right to crank up Mozart while you're throwing some brats on the grill on a Saturday night. I'm friends with a guy who believes that any non-sacred music is--at the very least--a near occasion of sin because it stirs the senses into a sort of euphoria and is implicitly sexual. In The Spirit of the Liturgy, Benedict XVI seems to agree:

“Rock”, on the other hand, is the expression of elemental passions, and at rock festivals it assumes a cultic character, a form of worship, in fact, in opposition to Christian worship. People are, so to speak, released from themselves by the experience of being part of a crowd and by the emotional shock of rhythm, noise, and special lighting effects. However, in the ecstasy of having all their defenses torn down, the participants sink, as it were, beneath the elemental force of the universe. The music of the Holy Spirit’s sober ine­briation seems to have little chance when self has become a prison, the mind is a shackle, and breaking out from both appears as a true promise of redemption that can be tasted at least for a few moments. [The Spirit of the Liturgy, (SF, CA: Ignatius, 2000), p 148]
 As somebody who has been to three Bon Jovi concerts, I find this seriously [BAD PUN ALERT] disconcerting.

You know how there are cafeteria Catholics who sincerely love Jesus but just can't get on board with a more serious faith because they get hung up on the contraception prohibition? I'd have that same struggle with giving up my rock music. I'd absolutely do it, but it would be pretty darn difficult.

I've asked a theology expert, my spiritual director and some other folks whose judgment I trust about this question. The closest I could get to a consensus is that the Church is generally silent on the issue and that if we consume rock/pop music, we should do so in moderation while remaining sensitive to overly dark melodies or scandalous lyrics.

I can't say I'm doing such a great job on moderation, but I have been pretty good about trying to screen the content of the songs I listen to. I haven't listened to Ozzy in quite awhile, and I've cut any song that takes an irreverent approach to God or to sexuality out of the rotation.

 So that's what I've done. But I want to know your thoughts. Hit up the Comment Box!


  1. Those pants are epic and should replace your sidebar photo....

    I think sometimes "Rock" is hard to classify, I would be curious what Benedict had in mind in writing. I would say spot on for "Heavy Metal" for sure, everything down to vestments, it's a liturgy, some bands even admitting to consecrating their albums to the devil.

    But all "Rock" bands I'm just not sure. And now there's Christian Rock... But still there is a certain style which regardless of the lyrics is "in opposition to Christian worship."

    Does Mumford count as "Rock"?

  2. Often times "heavy" metal musicians are extremely talented and skilled - vocally and instrumentally. I think what makes them stand out, is that they play / sing all aspects of the song with intensity - drums are as fast as they can be, which takes practice and talent. Guitar riffs are fast, loud, and melodic, but distorted. Lyrics are loud, as loud as you can get. Bass is the same. It is all aspects of music to their maximum expression. In some aspects this is a feat of great talent. I used to listen to heavy metal music a lot, and much of it contains lyrics that explore philosophical topics.

    There are even "christian" heavy metal bands. That being said, These bands play off of almost pure emotion, leaving no room for personal contemplation or thought, which unless they taken in with extreme moderation, can drown out any still small voice of the spirit - and make you drive your car way too fast.

  3. Elvis station on my pandora app .....WIN

  4. But can a melody itself be just as irreverent or profane? Why do we moderns weirdly limit our classification of profane to words?

  5. There's a lot of stuff to sort through here. First, Matt, I believe that for our purposes Rock would be categorized based on the relationship between the bass drum and snare drum (as mundane as that sounds)--basically anything with a drum set.

    Anon 5:13: I argue about this with my brother (who is a big fan of hard rock) all the time. I think that art focused on technique as a means of expression is a mistake. In that case, a super sweet drum riff that means nothing more than that the drummer is fast isn't really any different from Monet painting lillies just to show off brush technique. Now I don't think rock and roll is frequently worthy of being called art. It's more something fun to do. But it's a point worth pondering.

    Anon 6:57: As you'll see, I mentioned melodies in the topics that I consider when listening to music.

    1. Well even classical music use drums though, maybe not so much the snare drum though. They use drums in rowing too...

      I am really interested in the book "ho mathetes" noted below.

  6. Hmmm. My wife informs me that Monet was playing with light technique, not brush technique. Oops.

  7. Steve...good topic. I've analyzed and debated this in my own mind/soul over the years. I've gradually come to some conclusions, but still struggle with the topic every now and then. I have a similar background as you (minus the leather pants) - garage band in high school and college, playing punk, hard rock, etc. I'm surprised my old CD collection didn't burn on its own. In college, I had a radio show and played a lot of the stuff you're now avoiding and more (and have even confessed for the strong possibility that I led listeners astray). As I grew deeper in my faith, I left the explit songs (lyrics and melodies) behind. After a while, I only wanted to listen to something if it had a good/authentic meaning and purpose - and I believe there is some popular music out there that has meaning and's just often hard to find. My experience was/is kind of like fasting. When I'd cut something out, I'd eventually come back to it, and even though my senses were more acute and I'd be able to appreciate some of the stuff that I'd taken for granted before, such as the technical skill and clever lyrics, etc. (like finding new appreciation for food that you've avoided for a time), I'd also more sharply recognize what wasn't good, and what didn't bring me closer to God. I've learned to leave a lot of it behind now, as it was really just filler in my life...idle time if you will...and - here's the vote of confidence for you - I feel better for it. Nowadays, we listen mostly to Christian music (with close ears for heresy), jazz, etc. and bits and pieces of other stuff. I make sure to try to use the occasion of listening to anything mainstream as an opportunity to teach my children how it does or (usually) does not go along with God's ways. Be strong. I suggest cutting out any music you're having second thoughts about for 2 weeks to a month, then come back to it. See what you notice and see if you really need it in your life. Avoid anything that doesn't bring you closer to God in some way or another. If you can't, you have to seriously ask yourself if you're addicted. If you can't say "no", your "yes" means nothing. Peace brother!

  8. I think it helps to remember that our voice and physical talents (like playing an instrument) are among our first gifts from (and for) God. We must use them to honor God.

    Human emotion is part of who we are and our Creator knows this. What am I saying? He knows this first-hand! I think this emotion should be - in music - kept as we must keep it in our own hearts from day to day. For example, I may grieve, but I must struggle always against despair. I don't just freely give in. If I fall, I return to God and ask His forgiveness. I can share this struggle, fall and return through my music, giving HOPE, but to dwell in a pit of despair... No. Sing about anger? Sure we can (and hopefully forgiveness too), but we must not HATE. Listening to a song about someone who's "gotta' die" definitely does not honor God or anyone else for that matter. Of course, honoring Satan (especially by the lyrics) is NEVER an option.

    This is how I choose the music I listen to and I enjoy everything from Classical, Jazz and Country to Rock and even Rap!

    Whether liturgical or in any other venue, music really is a prayer of the heart... :)

  9. I will begin by saying I appreciate and listen to all kinds of music. I mean all! Rap, celtic, classical, rock, etc. There are very few genres I cannot appreciate or enjoy.

    That said, I have devised a simple test for determining if a genre of music is appropriate for me spiritually: Can I pray while listening to it? Along the same lines, can I thank God for this music? Is there something redeeming about it?

    If the answer to the above questions is no, there is something wrong with it. Of course, this rules out music with violent or sexual lyrics, or that is angry and rebellious in tone. But I do find I can listen to many different genres and be at peace.

    While that is my rule, I always try to be careful. Music, like visual imagery is very powerful. It bypasses the reasoning portion of our brain and sends its messages straight to our hearts. It can move us to worship, to anger, to rebellion, to lust, or to many other passions. So music should be treated carefully, and if we feel it has having a negative impact, it should be immediately cut off ("If your eye (or ear) offend you, pluck it out..." -Jesus).

    That is my musical philosophy in brief.

  10. I wrote my thesis on this in college because at Franciscan University there was a strong anti-Led Zepplin or any kind of rock vibe for the very reasons Steve wrote about. After doing a ton of research and really delving into the inner lives of a lot of these bands (Zepplin, Rolling Stones, Beatles) there was a lot of disappointing evidence that many of these songs were written under the influence of drugs or uplifting immoral behavior. The thing is, a lot of them weren't also. There are a lot of meaningless, totally nonsensical rock songs out there that are just guys playing their music. I have to agree with Sam though, be careful and be on your guard. Everything in moderation. Ask yourself if its bringing you closer or farther away from heaven. Sometimes it's doing neither, but it's worth being stringent. And to justify the Beatles....Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds wasn't written about LSD. :)

  11. I strongly recommend Dominican Basil Cole's Music and Morals: A Theological Appraisal of the Moral and Psychological Effects of Music. There is a longstanding conversation about the morality of music in philosophy and theology going back to Plato and including St. Augustine, Boethius, and others. The central question in the tradition is not "what does music do the the soul?" but rather "what does music imitate in the soul?" The principle is that true art imitates what is good and perfect about nature. So what music imitates shows its moral licitly or wrongness.

    That is why Benedict so strongly condemned rock music (and pop for slightly different reasons), because such music (in it's very form, not talking merely about lyrics) is not imitating a well-ordered soul. Rather it is imitating a soul lost in passion.

    I threw out all my rock and pop music (not to mention rap, electronic, etc) in 2002 for these reasons and am happily on a fairly strict classical music diet (classical music taken very broadly to include chant, polyphony, choral, Renaissance, baroque, some modern etc). I also listen to good authentic folk which doesn't violate basic principles of artful music, such as trad Irish music, bluegrass, and yes even some vintage country. There are gray areas. But it's smaller than one would think.

    My thought is that with so much unbelievably excellent music out there (consider the vastness of the works of Bach or Mozart), I want to spend my limited musical listening time with the nobler and objectively more beautiful. That doesn't mean I freak out when I hear muzak at the gas station or when my buddy flips the radio on, but it does mean focusing on my experiences in the massive world of classical music.

    I was challenged to do this by a couple very good friends who recognized my bad habits and making the switch has been totally worth it.

    1. Magnificent! That book is exactly what I have been looking for, thank you for your comment.

    2. I echo Matt's thank you!

      I'm out way over my skis in positing this next point so please correct me where I'm wrong, but I wonder whether "a soul lost in passion" is an intrinsically evil thing--so long as the lower appetites are healthily subjected to our high nature.

      At first reading, I would think that opposing rock/pop music because they induce passion reflects a certain degree of Manichaeism. Indeed our passions for love, justice, etc. are good as long as they are properly ordered.

      I'll make an analogy with another form of art: I love good prose. I'm passionate about it. And I can (and often do) read a well-written book or essay about, let's say, baseball and feel a deep passion for the game that was induced by the writer's skill with the written word. Does this reflect a disordered soul that is lost in passion? I wouldn't think so. It seems to me to be entirely neutral.

      Film and rhetoric seem to be two other art forms capable of appealing to our passion, buy they are never criticized like music is.

      Does this make any sense? Obviously you and Benedict XVI have a far better understanding of these issues than I do...

  12. Thanks for your comments gentlemen.

    Steve, you make a good point. The passions, though wounded by concupiscence, are good of themselves. However, they are only good with reference to the whole person (i.e. morally good) when they are ordered to reason. This isn't to deny the value of strong, even great, passions; such passions are found in virtuous souls who are harmoniously moved to true goods in conformity to what they see with their intellect and desire in their will and passions. The idea is that good music reflects this movement. The lower passions are ordered to the higher faculties in a complimentary way.

    I take "lost in passion" pejoratively in the sense that reason can be subverted by emotions. St. Thomas clearly teaches in the I-II of the Summa that the passions are good or bad in reference to how they are subjected or ordered to the will & reason. A virtuous person strives after the good, true, and beautiful; his passions should correspond to this effort. A vicious person by contrast seeks the good only insofar as the appetites of the passions are satiated and in this way they are primarily angry, lustful, avaricious, etc. (Not to deny there are also intellectual vices as well as moral, but that would be getting off topic).

    Nevertheless, it is a further question how these principles are reflected specifically in music. The principle is that art imitates nature, and the proposal is that music imitates the soul. Hence, we need to know what the order of the soul is, as well as what order is proper to music. We've already discussed the first distinction a bit. The second is easy to enumerate in principle but gets complex in the details; the short answer is that melody/harmony and rhythm are elements of music which in due proportion imitate the higher and lower parts of the virtuous soul. Conversely, when these musical elements are disordered this imitate the vicious soul (of course, in various degrees).

    One example: A common criticism of rock music is that it places an imbalanced emphasis on syncopated rhythm, such that the melody is subverted to the beat. Syncopation, by definition, is the displacement of the natural rhythmic accent. This is not a problem if it provides transition or accent on the melody, but syncopation used in this way would necessarily be temporary. In rock music syncopation morphs this deliberate disruption into a rhythmic norm, which in consequence undermines the unity which naturally belongs to rhythm and melody. The aggressive, jarring rhythm of rock is accentuated by distorted amplification, furthermore making melodic or harmonic instruments primal in character. By contrast, the strong emotions found in a Mozart opera are structurally oriented to resolution and order. All this is painting in broad strokes of course. Jack Johnson is really very different music than Skrillex.

    Here's a good intro essay which elaborates some of my comments:

  13. Ii would be most interesting to see what you all would think about a Catholic hard rock/metal act like Katholicus? You can check out some videos on YouTube (just type in "Katholicus"), or hear some songs on


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