Can Sounds Be Evil?

Can Sounds Be Evil?

I had a thoughtful student respectfully take issue with me over the topic of whether sound or instrumental music (music without lyrics) could be classified as moral. Here are his comments:

“In the last of the audio lectures [of Straight Thinking], I heard you make a passing remark by example about music. It was in the context of [logical fallacies]. You responded critically to the statement: ‘That music arrangement without lyrics is morally evil.’ I interpreted your comments as suggesting ‘Can sounds be evil? There are some people that think they can . . . ‘”

The student went on to make a case that instrumental music could be moral, based upon certain neuroscience data along with a particular understanding of Christian sanctification. Interestingly my RTB friend and colleague, Dr. Dave Rogstad, agrees with this basic view. Dave’s view is that instrumental music can play musical notes without lyrics that reflect a moral perspective.

Here are some of my thoughts about why I don’t think mere sounds or a series of music notes without lyrics can rightly be classified as moral (good or evil):

As a student and teacher of logic, I think to say that sounds or musical notes are moral is to commit a category mistake. This logical error in reasoning mixes ideas or categories that do not belong together. One might use the popular idiom that it’s like comparing apples and oranges. Only personal agents can be moral or immoral. Sounds or musical notes in and of themselves do not enter the moral sphere. Music must carry a message to make a moral statement that can then be evaluated as being good or evil.

I’m willing to accept that sounds or musical notes can impact a person’s brain state or state of being and can be perceived as aesthetically pleasing, displeasing, or possibly neither. But that is different than affirming that sounds can actually be in themselves moral or immoral. Certain musical notes might strike a person as being menacing, suggesting danger or a threat. But I think that only happens in a context where other aspects are included such as in a story line in a film, for example. Change the context and the musical notes may contribute to something being viewed as quite positive.

I think as creatures made in the image of God, humans possess unique aesthetic qualities and sensibilities. But it seems to me that having one’s brain state impacted by sound does not equate to moral influence. I guess I’m also skeptical that some of the neuroscience appealed to in such cases may carry unwarranted naturalistic and deterministic presuppositions. So I am highly skeptical of sounds or musical notes being able to impact genuine human moral volition.

My student, and my friend Dave Rogstad, expressed concern that certain musical genres even without lyrics (for example, loud rock music) could negatively impact the listener, and in the case of the Christian, compromise one’s goal of living a sanctified life. It seems reasonable to me that listening to a genre of music that includes lyrics, along with such factors as environment, presuppositions, past experiences, and anticipation can promote or encourage a lack of self control and therefore could be problematic in terms of Christian sanctification. But I think it is a cumulative experience, not an isolated impact of sound or musical notes. So again, the idea that mere sounds or notes in and of themselves can actually contain moral categories strikes me as a logical confusion of category.

Again, this article reflects some of my thoughts on this subject. I can respect the convictions of conscience on issues like this even if they are different from my own. Sanctification is something all Christians should take seriously, and they should give reflection to topics relating to it.

I recommend that Christians put the arguments and conclusions found in this brief article to the test of Scripture, reason, and conscience (1 Thessalonians 5:21) and accept or reject them accordingly.