Question: How should a Catholic select the music he listens to? I like sacred music, but that doesn’t seem like a wide enough selection-yet some of what is available in the secular market seems dangerous.
Answer: The questioner is right, of course, but just for the record, there is a wide variety of sacred music. In addition to the obvious Gregorian chants, there are a wide range of polyphonic pieces, a great number of classical pieces, and modern hymns. But, outside of monasteries, very few people restrict their listening to just religious music. Yet, there is good reason to be concerned about the selection of music.
Since time immemorial people have recognized that music can be a powerful force for good as well as evil. Saint Augustine (354-371) is credited with saying that “He who sings prays twice”-but Saint John Chrysostom (345-407) observed that “demons congregate where there are licentious chants. And those who bring comedians, dancers, and harlots into their feasts call in demons and Satan himself, and fill their homes with innumerable contentions, among them jealousy, adultery, debauchery, and countless evils.” Through the prophet Ezechiel we learn that Lucifer’s “pipes were prepared in the same day he was created”-yet the Psalms are replete with favorable references to music and song, David himself being musician enough to banish the evil spirit who influenced King Saul. Like all created things, music takes on its moral character from the way in which it is used by men.
It is important to note that music of bad moral character may be music of high technical quality-what is evil is not always ugly. For the purposes of this article we are interested only in the effects music has on people to move them to good or to evil.
Not everyone makes use of music in the same way. Church music may be employed to worship God, to instruct the faithful or help them remember what they have learned, or to inspire men to greater acts of religion. Secular music has even wider applications, some of which are shared by Church music. To some people music is merely background, intended to drive out the noises of city life. To others it is a “pick-me-up” in the morning or a “help-me-unwind” in the evening. Some are fascinated by the technical qualities of the art; the range of the instruments, the dexterity of the players, the imagination of the composers, the coordination of the symphony, and so forth. To many music is an accompaniment to social life, or to the remembrance of good times (or bad) with family and friends. Music can be patriotic. It may be sought as an opportunity to laugh or to cry. Many of these seemingly neutral uses of music may have good or bad moral character, depending upon the ways we use them.
Of moral significance is the reality that music often affects us on a subconscious level. The ideas we take in may go unnoticed at the time, or be quickly forgotten, only to surface in the conscious mind at a later time. Claims are made about “subliminal messages” and “backward masking”-true or false, it is undeniable that the mind picks up bits of information here and there which may surface later on without a conscious decision to accept or reject them.
Strongly to be avoided are the types of music with vulgar or violent lyrics. Modern society is very liberal in this connection, even allowing the use of the public airwaves to propagate obscenity and violence. The listener must recognize that while some types of music may be employed to deliver a sadistic or suggestive theme, no musical genre is necessarily free of offending lyrics. The “rappers” may do more of it, but one could just as easily write a nasty waltz. Civilized people have an obligation not to patronize music that promotes vulgarity and crime-if for no other reason than self protection and the protection of our loved ones.
Similarly dangerous are lyrics with an antisocial or anticlerical message. Appearances may be deceptive-the music may be sweet, and the lyrics may be difficult to discern or to understand, while still filling us with dangerous ideas. Clearly subversive are the artists who ask us to “Imagine” a world “with “no religion too” as a positive thing, or who suggest that “silver girl”-the works for injecting heroin-makes an appropriate “Bridge over Troubled Waters.” Remember that modern “education” has left us a population unwilling or incapable of independent thought. In a world where people rely on what they have been told, rather than on what they have researched, the television, the movies, and even popular music have become vital sources of “news” which shape the thinking of the citizens and the faithful.
Music represents an important part of our economy-national as well as global-and as consumers we ought to pay attention to what ideologies we are supporting with our entertainment dollars. Some artists ought clearly not be supported, and some will be warned by declining revenues that it is time to “change their tune.” The artist who produces both good and bad works might be selectively supported-the “single” 45-rpm records of bygone years made selective purchasing much easier than the long playing albums-the single song Internet “download” might be the modern analogy. Sales figures are the most persuasive form of consumer influence. Don’t buy the bad to get the good.
Thirty years ago it was common to find young people who knew all of the lyrics to “Jesus Christ, Superstar,” but none of the words of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John-whose religion was shaped more by the former than by the latter. Again, Christian duty and the urge for self preservation ought to keep us away from such music.
Evil environments can make otherwise wholesome music bad. If you choose to listen to your music in a place that doesn’t open until midnight, has hardly any lights, and is filled with smoke and scantily dressed people, you are probably in the wrong place. Likewise if alcohol consumption is a major activity-and certainly if illegal drugs are in use. Men and women ought not to be “camping out” together to attend. Catholics ought never frequent persons, places, or things which present an occasion of sin.
Psychic stimulation by loud or fast music could present a problem. A beat much faster than a vigorous walk will make many people suggestible, violent or irritable. Above a certain level loud music is physically damaging. Unwilling neighbors and bystanders ought not have to put up with someone else’s noise.
Like all legitimate pleasures, music should be enjoyed with appropriate moderation. Despite claims to the contrary, very few people can work or study effectively while being distracted by music that is more than barely noticeable. Entertainment should not present an undue economic burden on the family, take time away from essential activities, or cause dissent or regular separation among family members.
Finally, let us recognize that sometimes we ought to listen to the other things going on around us. To God in silent prayer, to our friends and relatives, and sometimes, even to the birds and the crickets.