Friday, September 05, 2008

Music and Morality, 1

We all innately sense that some music is good for us and some is not; yet few of us are willing to go so far as to say that there may be some music inherently immoral.  In fact, few of us are willing to specify certain types of music or even pieces of music as good or evil.

There is some justification for this, even if social pressures push our reluctance to issue judgments in tricky areas to extremes.  This is surely a tricky area: often times music that sounds bad is simply unfamiliar, and cultural gestures that smack of the obscene in one context are quite acceptable in another.  When we read that many Church Fathers, for example, favored outlawing the flute from Church liturgies, some of us scratch our heads and wonder if they have gone too far.  Certainly we would not be inclined to take such a prohibition seriously in today's Catholic Church; then again, in many Eastern expressions of Christianity no instruments are allowed.

I hope to discuss some of the connections between music and morality with the purpose of exploring whether the Church's tradition upholding Gregorian chant as the exemplar of sacred music is rationally justifiable or simply upheld because of pious associations that chant possesses for the pious.  A group of priests has urged me to write a mongraph on this question, and I've completed enough research at this point to offer some reflections, hopefully without giving away the contents of the proposed book.

I would like to begin by saying again clearly that a 'liberal' critique of musical absolutists has merit, analogous to the legitimate concerns raised by 'situation ethics'.  Both the liberal critique and situation ethics, however, push the idea that actions must be judged relative to circumstances to an embrace of a thorough-going relativism that is equally false and more pernicious.  I mentioned yesterday that the action of hitting someone on the head cannot be said to be absolutely wrong; it must be located in a context with a motive.  Hitting a drowning man on the head to save his life is justifiable.  Hitting the same man on the head in order to kill him is evil.   

There are actions that must always be considered wrong, and this is why God instructs us by the Law.  But adherence to the letter kills; we must press on the the Spirit that illuminates the life-giving Lawgiver.  The Spirit allows us to discern in the tricky cases.  Tough cases make for bad law, but a good understanding of good law makes for clearer judgment in tough cases.

The goodness of a piece of music depends a great deal on what the composer meant to accomplish, and whether he or she is a skilled composer and so able to accomplish what he or she intends.  It depends in the same way on the performers and listeners or sponsors of a performance.  Finally, and perhaps most crucially, it depends on whether the use for which it was intended is the use it gets.  Thus, "The Hokey Pokey" is a legitimate wedding reception song (though had I married, I would not have permitted its use at the reception), but is not an appropriate song to be played at the wedding itself.  Similarly, Gregorian chant is splendid for the worship of God, but it can also be performed at a sports bar.  Not only would this profane the chant, but it would be a disservice to the patrons of said bar.

So if we posit that there is a type of music most appropriate for the Divine Liturgy, this does not imply that all other music for less exalted purposes is evil.  I suspect that this is some of the fear that people have talking about music and morality.  We might have to give up Pat Boone or Survivor or Mariah Carey if we follow moral logic to extremes.  On the other hand, some challenge to our musical tastes should always be welcomed.  I personally believe that listening to lots of rock or jazz (of a certain type) makes one melancholy.  I feel the same about some Wagner, and the Second Viennese School.  While I lack any expertise in this particular area, I have a difficult time persuading myself that Gangster Rap in large doses could produce anything but violence.

From time to time I will add to these thoughts.  I welcome any questions--this is topic normally close to our hearts, and so tends to raise many questions!


Watcher said...

Good topic! I think a good rule of thumb for liturgical music is to what extent it facilitates the "full and active" participation of the congregation.

Being a "praise and worship" music minister, as well as a cantor in the Ukrainian rite, I have seen this principle in action.

While I like Gregorian chant, I don't imagine a lot of people singing along. Perhaps some education would be necessary.

Since music itself is only one aspect of the liturgy, obviously people need to know what is happening otherwise, so I imagine they need to know what it is to give thanks to and worship God. There is a tendency toward thinking that good music is essential to the worship experience. I don't agree with this.

I look forward to your continuing reflections!

Mr. Potato said...

Chant in a sports bar? You seem to think that this doesn't happen. On Chicago's sports radio AM 670 late at night there is the David Stein Show. He uses a clip of Gregorian Chant as lead in music. Stein's show has a theme "Celebrating Life Through Sports" and he exhorts guys to get rid of porn from their lives. It's a great show. What I find absurd is that a Jewish sportscaster has embraced Gregorian chant in Latin but not our Church.

maria in elmhurst said...

Music that is too closely endorsed by someone that is considered evil can become evil by association? What about Wagner? I love Wagner and remember being apologetic with Jewish friends about it---but is there something in the viewpoint of the man that influences (einfluss) the music or is it that the association by itself is enough? Is it better not to know the artist just like seeing the sausage made?

After all, Jesus didn't leave us a complete oevre...


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