Music—Can It Be a Threat?
‘HOW could music possibly be a threat?’ you might ask. ‘After all, music is only sound.’ True, but sounds can influence us deeply. Who does not react to a scream in the dead of night? And what about infectious laughter? When one member of an audience laughs outright, the whole crowd often breaks into unrestrained laughter.
Music Has Power
Now turn those sounds into music. Depending on the type of song or music, soon feet will be tapping, bodies swaying, fingers snapping, voices humming. An entire audience can be affected! By what? By the sound of music.
To illustrate: At one time David, mentioned earlier, served as a musician in King Saul’s court. The young man was “skilled at playing” the harp. And his music helped to calm troubled Saul.—1 Samuel 16:18-23.
Music stirs the emotions. A crowd may rise to its feet as a jazz group starts to beat out a familiar tune. Lovers of classical music may be gripped by emotion as they listen to the 1812 Overture by Tchaikovsky. With battles raging, cannons firing and victory bells ringing, they almost imagine they are there. Yes, music has power.
For centuries, politicians and rulers have used that power to sway people’s hearts. In what way? By means of national anthems and patriotic songs. How Hitler and the Nazi party used the anthem Deutschland, Deutschland über alles (Germany, Germany above all else) to lead the masses along a pathway of death and destruction! Curiously, this anthem was based on classical music composed by Haydn. In answer to it, the British fervently sang “God Save the King.” Hitler, for his part, was greatly enamored also by the music of Wagner.
The persuasive power of music was evident also in Bible times. The record in Exodus informs us that while Moses was on Mount Horeb receiving the Law tablets from Jehovah, the Israelites became impatient and ordered Moses’ brother Aaron to make for them another god—a molten statue of a calf. Then they offered sacrifices to this idol in a religious festival. And what next? “The people sat down to eat and drink. Then they got up to have a good time.”—Exodus 32:1-6.
When Moses and Joshua descended from the mountain, they heard a shouting in the Israelite camp. Joshua thought it was the noise of battle. But Moses interpreted the sound correctly. It was singing, not about a mighty battle performance or defeat. It was “the sound of other singing.” Moses could tell by the unusual sound that the music had a sinister connection. What was it? The people were singing and dancing around the golden calf. They were participating in unrestrained idolatry along with song and dance. Music was prominent in their false, immoral worship.—Exodus 32:7-25.
That event provides some lessons for Christians today. For one thing, music can affect you. The modern world is very much music oriented. But should raucous music and other popular music, with sexual overtones conducive to loose morals, be featured at gatherings of Jehovah’s Witnesses? Never should that be! During recent years, however, even with some elders and parents condoning it, there has been a tendency to be lax in this respect. Some of this music has exalted immorality, rebellion, drugs and even spiritism.
Does this mean that music in itself is necessarily a negative influence? Not at all. As mentioned above, music was used in the sacred worship of Jehovah. And Jesus, in his illustration of the return of the prodigal son, spoke of the father’s celebrating with “a music concert and dancing.”—Luke 15:25.
Can Music Convey a Philosophy?
In our modern times music plays a much more insistent role in daily living. Over the last few decades, a vast world industry has mushroomed, churning out hundreds of millions of records and cassettes every year. Whereas a hundred years ago listening to live performances or active participation therein was the only exposure to music, and that infrequently, today the hearing of music is a daily experience. So the question is pertinent—can music convey a philosophy? Can music influence a person’s thinking or life-style?
An immediate clue is found in radio and television advertising. Many commercial advertisements are accompanied by music. Thus, with the aid of music, the product’s name is engraved on minds—even those of children and infants.
In ancient Israel, music was used in a similar way but for a far more noble purpose. The psalms were sung to music, which doubtlessly aided the people in memorizing the text. For example, the Bible record tells us that, at the inauguration of Solomon’s temple, the Levite singers were gathered and also others “with cymbals and with stringed instruments and harps . . . and along with them priests to the number of a hundred and twenty sounding the trumpets; and . . . the trumpeters and the singers were as one in causing one sound to be heard in praising and thanking Jehovah.” Here, music was inspirational and upbuilding. It served to praise Jehovah.—2 Chronicles 5:12, 13.
Likely, on that occasion they were singing and playing Psalm 136, and the music would certainly help them to recall the words. This illustrates the point—that music can convey a message. It can also be the vehicle for advocating a product or a philosophy, or for recommending a life-style, whether the music is accompanied by words or not. This is true today whether we speak of classical or modern music idioms.
For example, the Encyclopædia Britannica, in its biography of Ludwig van Beethoven, “widely regarded as the greatest composer who ever lived,” states: “He revealed more vividly than any of his predecessors the power of music to convey a philosophy of life without the aid of a spoken text.” His universally known Pastoral Symphony is an example of this. It clearly transmits Beethoven’s love for nature. Yes, music can move us and affect our emotions.
Take as another example the works of the Austrian composer Gustav Mahler, now in vogue among classical music lovers. One musicologist speaks of this composer’s “obsession with death” and describes “the unremitting quest to discover some meaning in life that was to pervade Mahler’s life and music.” Speaking of his Symphony No. 1, the writer describes its contents, saying: “The joy of life becomes clouded over by an obsession with death.” He goes on to say: “Symphony No. 2 begins with the death obsession . . . and culminates in an avowal of the Christian belief in immortality. . . . The religious element in these works is highly significant.” So now the question arises, Could Mahler’s religious confusion, obsessions and neurosis affect the listener?
Another case is that of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. This ballet music represents a pagan rite in which a young virgin dances herself to death to propitiate the god of spring. This rite, as one commentator wrote, “is here expressed in music whose most immediately striking characteristic is its rhythmic power—the hypnotic, compulsive force of rhythmic patterns.” The effect is startling and perhaps disquieting. In fact, “it was calculated to overthrow European certainties about musical tradition.”
So, even classical music should make you pause and ask yourself, Will excessive exposure to a certain type of music tend to depress me or overexcite me? Will the composer’s philosophy creep through and perhaps affect my thinking negatively? Of course, if his music does not undermine faith in the Creator and in His great works, the composer’s influence may turn out to be neutral or even very positive. Then again, it is possible to listen to music without ever knowing what the composer had in mind. In that case the meaning, if any, will depend entirely on the listener’s imagination.
Now, can these criteria be applied to modern music? Is modern music upbuilding or debasing? Could it represent a threat to Christian morality and spirituality? Our next article will analyze these and other issues.
[Picture on page 5]
Music can be used for sinister ends
[Pictures on page 6]
Is All Their Music Upbuilding?