Is there neutrality in music? This article looks at the message of music and the origins and effects of rock music. The author also discusses 1 Corinthians 14:7-11.

Source: Reformed Perspective, 1995. 6 pages.

Rock Music and the Question of Neutrality

As the contemporary Christian music controversy promises to penetrate the twenty-first century, the deciding factor for most is still the question of music's moral capacity. Although various related matters have shared in the debate, such as dress styles, body language, dancing, and the life-styles of the performers, ultimately Christian rock must stand or fall on the basis of the neutrality or non-neutrality of music.

Those who advocate a pro-rock position point out that music itself is not capable of communicating evil or good. Rather, it is a neutral tool like language and can be used positively or negatively, based on the lyrics that accompany it. Further, they claim that an unpleasant reaction to a style is not morally based, but is simply a matter of cultural conditioning and taste. They point to ethnomusicological studies and the history of church music to demonstrate that there is no such thing as a patently sacred or Christian form of music. Consequently, we are admonished not to judge styles that we dislike since we are not within the circle of those who enjoy them. Good music, they say, is simply music that creates a “heightened state of being” in the individual, not music that conforms to the stylistic canons of certain “experts” or moralists. In other words there may be good or bad songs within a style, but there is no such thing as a bad style of music. Therefore, they feel that rock music is perfectly legitimate for Christian amalgamation, as long as it remains within its sphere of function and appreciation.

This article, then, is a response to such progressive positions on music, including those of Brad Davis (“Hot Pink Refrigerators,” Reformed Perspective, April 1994). It is also a supplement to the opposite view espoused by Clarence Bouwman (“Rock Music: For the Christian or Not?” Reformed Perspective, February 1995). After researching the topic, we have discovered that there are several factors that make the claim of musical neutrality – especially that of rock music – highly improbable. Here I would like to present three such testimonies: the witness of Scripture, secular evaluations of rock music and punk rock.

Before beginning with the evidence, we should remember the foundational principle that music is a language that is designed to communicate to and affect the emotional and psychological faculties of human beings. Therefore, instead of relaying cognitive information, music speaks to us in terms of common feelings, moods, and emotions. Although the question of how music communicates is far from settled, aesthetic philosopher John Hospers offers a very convincing and helpful explanation, in his article on the problems of aesthetics in The Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

When people feel sad they exhibit certain types of behavior: they move slowly, they tend to talk in hushed tones, their movements are not jerky and abrupt or their tones strident and piercing. Now music can be said to be sad when it exhibits these same properties: sad music is normally slow, the intervals between the tones are small, the tones are not strident but hushed and soft.

In short, the work of art may be said to have a specific feeling property when it has features that human beings have when they feel the same or similar emotion or mood. This is the bridge between musical qualities and human qualities, which explains how music can possess properties that are literally possessed only by sentient beings.

With this in mind let us examine a significant text in the Bible that addresses the issue at hand.

1 Corinthians 14:7-11🔗

The view that music, without lyrics, is not morally neutral is indirectly supported by a very important passage of Scripture. In 1 Corinthians 14:7-11 Paul uses the analogy of musical instruments to illustrate the uselessness of speaking in other tongues without an interpreter. Although Paul's primary interest in this passage is to give a proper understanding of spiritual gifts, his analogies using musical instruments disclose his comprehension of music's ability to communicate. In verse 7 Paul states, “Likewise, when lifeless objects emit a sound, whether flute or harp, how will what is being played on the flute or harp be known unless they produce a distinction in the tones?” Paul is saying that without variation in tones the message of a musical instrument is incomprehensible and meaningless.

What is essential here is to realize that Paul would not be able to make such a statement unless music, when played with a distinction of tones (that is, a meaningful melody), was capable of “being known” (that is, comprehended). The process referred to by the statement “how will what is being played on the flute or harp be known?” is none other than the encoding and decoding process between the musician and the listener.

That the phrase, “what is being played on the flute or on the harp,” is not referring to some familiar recognizable melody (as in the NIV), but to the actual encoding of any music that is thoughtfully composed, is supported by Paul's analogy with human language in verse 9. Here, Paul uses the same words and word order as in verse 7 (with one exception), “how shall what is being spoken be known?” With both music in verse 7 and words in verse 9, Paul is referring to communication systems that are capable of encoding and decoding specific data between human beings – one on the emotional level and the other on the cognitive. If the statement, “what is being played on the flute or harp,” does not refer to the ability of music to communicate accurately in the realm of emotions, moods and feelings, then its analogy with verse 9 what is being spoken would be significantly weakened. This is because Paul is not referring to some specific message with the phrase, “what is being spoken” (verse 9) but any message that a language is capable of communicating.

In his commentary on 1 Corinthians, Leon Morris states, “Neither flute nor harp makes sense unless there is a meaningful variation in the sounds produced. A melody finely played speaks to a man's very soul. An aimless jangle means nothing”(pp. 192-93). On the same verse, Archibald Robertson and Alfred Plumber state that “the music must be different, if it is to guide people to be joyous, or sorrowful, or devout. Soulless instruments can be made to speak a language, but not if all the notes are alike” (pp. 308-09). It should be clear, then, that Paul's analogous use of music with spoken language shows that he considered music to be a language in its own right, able to communicate to the emotions as words do to the mind.

This evidence from the Scriptures lobbies against the possibility of music being morally neutral. Since 1 Corinthians 14:7-11 shows that music is a language in itself, capable of communicating to the feelings, emotions and moods of moral beings, and since not all feelings, emotions and moods are good, it is only reasonable to conclude that music has the power to communicate evil.

Secular Evaluations of Rock Music🔗

In my second line of argument, I have chosen not to offer the sentiments of Christians who side with me in the neutrality debate. On the contrary, I think that the opinions of non-Christian researchers who have no particular religious agenda will be more convincing than the puritanical assessment of fundamental believers.


First, I offer the insights of sociologists, who contribute to our topic from their own perspective and training. Sociologist Simon Frith, in his book Sound Effects, Youth, Leisure and the Politics of Rock' n' Roll, writes concerning the priority of the music over the lyrics in rock communication:

Sociologists of popular music have always fallen for the easy terms of lyrical analysis. Such a word-based approach is not helpful at getting at the meaning of rock… Most rock records make their impact musically rather than lyrically. The words, if they are noticed at all, are absorbed after the music has made its mark. The crucial variables are the sound and rhythm (p. 14).

Peter Wicke, professor at Humboldt University in Berlin, in his sociological study of rock music, describes rock's capacity to communicate specific values:

And even if involvement with rock music is a relatively independent cultural process, it is fulfilled in relation to playing styles, and stylistic forms, structures of sound and visual concepts of presentation which primarily follow the musician's value judgments and the meanings they intended. These reflect the musician's view of himself as an artist as well as the aesthetic and political claims which he connects with his music (p. 92).

Finally, from his book, Rock Music, we cite sociologist William Schafer, It [rock] is a medium, a means of communicating emotions … the medium is the message (p. 13). Elsewhere he states, There is no separation of form and content in rock, since they are fused as a continuous experience, a package of simultaneous impressions and feelings (p. 25).

Musicologists and Rock Historians🔗

Music critics dating before the introduction of rock music also testify concerning music's ability to communicate to the emotions. Leonard B. Meyer, in his book Emotion and Meaning in Music, discloses:

From Plato down to the most recent discussions of aesthetics and the meaning of music, philosophers and critics, have with few exceptions, affirmed their belief in the ability of music to evoke emotional responses in listeners. Most of the treatises on musical composition and performance stress the importance of communication of feeling and emotion. Composers have demonstrated in their writings and by the expression marks used in their musical scores their faith in the affective power of music. And finally listeners, past and present, have reported with remarkable consistency that music does arouse feeling and emotions in them (pp. 6-7).

Among recent rock historians, Charles Brown describes the rhythmic factor in musical communication, “In music the basic beat pattern, or rhythm, tells us something about the emotional feel of different kinds of songs” (p. 7). Another rock historian, Joe Stuessy, admits that music's power to communicate has been realized for ages, “We have known intuitively for centuries that music can make us feel relaxed, scared, patriotic, ambitious, mad, sad, happy, romantic and reverent” (p. 394).

But how do experts in the field describe the nature and emotional character of rock music? As early as the 1960s Nik Cohn asserted, “What was new about it (rock and roll/pop) was its aggression, its sexuality, its sheer noise; and most of this came from the beat” (p. 9). Next, Peter Wicke describes one of the first rock and roll songs, Bill Haley's “Rock Around the Clock:” “The whole sound is consciously unbalanced and noisy, literally every bar seems to signal rebellion” (p. 45). Similarly, Tom Manoff depicts the music of the Blue Oyster Cult: “Raw, frenetic, purposefully distorted, this music is not meant to be pretty” (p. 408). Lastly, we summon Joe Stuessy's description of the heavy metal style, “There were the distorted, repetitive guitar riffs and steady duple subdivisions of the beat that were to characterize heavy metal. The vocal style and musical ambience seemed to project attitudes of anger, defiance and aggression;” (p. 308).

Finally no one should neglect the alarming verdict of University of Chicago sociologist and author of The Closing of The American Mind, Allan Bloom. Bloom observes the emotional properties of rock music this way, “Young people know that rock has the beat of sexual intercourse.” He adds, “But rock music has one appeal only, a barbaric appeal, to sexual desire – not love, not eros, but sexual desire undeveloped and untutored” (p. 73).

Based on such evidence we conclude that what rock music conveys is not an innocent blend of melody, harmony and rhythm. Rather, it encodes emotions, feelings and moods that are unquestionably incompatible with the Christian message.

Punk Rock🔗

My final appeal touches on the matter of aesthetics and neutrality. I hope to demonstrate through the following example that man's sense of beauty and taste can be purposefully distorted. After outlining the aesthetic underpinnings of two avant-garde artistic movements, we will show how their aesthetic philosophy extended to the world of rock music.

Dada and Surrealism were modern artistic movements that were developed to fulfill various purposes. These purposes were not void of morality. Rather, the Dada and Surrealistic aesthetic was one of irrationality, fragmentation, disintegration, satire and shock. According to their own admissions it was patently anti-aesthetic.

Francis Schaeffer comments on Dada: “The result (of Dada) was the final absurdity of everything including humanity” (p. 188). George Grosz, well acquainted with this movement, says,

Nothing was holy to us. Our movement (Dada) was neither mystical, communistic nor anarchistic. All of these movements had some sort of program, but ours was completely nihilistic. We spat on everything, including ourselves. Our symbol was nothingness, a vacuum, a void.Hebdige, p. 106

Anyone wishing to communicate through a form or style that employs this philosophy must also use its distinctive components. Because genres are generally limited in purpose and characteristics, those who employ them are also limited by the same. Having briefly explained the purposes and ingredients of Dada and Surrealism we are compelled to ask the obvious question. Is a Christian able to communicate a Christian message through a work of art produced within a form that uses the aesthetic and stylistic canons of Dada or Surrealism, and be true to the form? May a Christian imitate any artistic, literary or musical style that demands allegiance to absurdity, nihilism, and chaos, in order to communicate the gospel? The answer must of course be no.

We are now faced with an important question. Can the characteristic components of Dada and Surrealism – nihilism, meaninglessness, irrationality, and absurdity – be expressed in a genre of music? The answer is yes, and the example is punk rock. Although punk rock is no longer popular in the 90s, we examine it here because it is a priceless example of intention, design and meaning in a musical genre. Unlike other forms of rock, punk's sociological, political and moral ideologies have been well-documented and clearly defined by its originators and propagators.

Punk Origins🔗

Punk rock was a product of anti-art experiments conducted by various artists in New York City. (The term itself is vernacular for muck, trash, rubbish, even whore.) These artists incorporated whatever they thought to be worthless, banal, trivial, obscene or pornographic (Wicke, p. 139). Peter Wicke states that “using the most shocking presentation possible of what was worthless, the New York punk artists tried to question a value system whose other side they thus displayed” (pp. 138-39).

It was from this anti-art philosophy, related to French Dadaism, that Malcolm McLaren, the revolutionary manager of a transvestite group in New York, developed the anti-music sound of punk and marketed it in Great Britain through the punk rock group the Sex Pistols. There, during the 70s, punk became a graphic social expression of the boredom and anarchy of a teenage culture that was suffering from high unemployment (Wicke, p. 136).

The harmonious assessment of rock authorities as to the artistic predilections of punk rock is quite remarkable. Charles Brown expresses the view of the consensus well in stating, “Essentially, punk philosophy is dadaist or antiart” (p. 242).

Punk Aesthetics🔗

Punk rock models how music can embody and express rebellion. Because the rock sound, for various reasons, was becoming too “sophisticated” and palatable, punk actually set out to subvert whatever “class” rock had achieved. As the rock and roll of Bill Haley rebelled against the aesthetic norms of its era, so punk outdid its sire and gave it a black eye.

Brown admits, “Punk was a form of rebellion, like other styles of rock; it turned against all other musical forms of the 1970s” (p. 242). Wicke gives us a description of the music and philosophy of the first punk group the Sex Pistols:

This anarchist credo was literally spat out by Sex Pistols' lead singer Johnny Rotten in a barely articulated scream. The whole thing was accompanied by a frenzied noise made up of the monotonous screeching sound of guitars played in parallel and drums being flogged mercilessly. Undisguised anger hammered the short phrases of a minimalist two chord aesthetic into the heads of their listeners (pp.141-42).

It is no wonder that lead singer Johnny Rotten said, “We're into chaos not music” (Hebdige, p. 109). Dick Hebdige offers another description of punk, “Typically, a barrage of guitars with volume and treble turned to maximum accompanied by the occasional saxophone would pursue relentless (un)melodic lines against a turbulent background of cacophonous drumming and screaming vocals” (p. 109). This was quite clearly a brand of music that was intended to be ugly.

Punk rock is the translation of the degenerative values of Dada and Surrealism into music. It not only shows the desensitization process in music, but demonstrates intention, design and meaning in a musical genre in well-documented and graphic ways.

Is the Christian wrong, therefore, for passing judgment on the punk genre, along with the aesthetics of Dada and Surrealism, as being unfit for the Christian message? Is this form aesthetically neutral simply because there are many who have acquired a taste for it and appreciate it? Even though the answer is obvious, none of these features has prevented Christians from adopting the punk genre or its milder cousin, new wave.

Those Christians who insist that music is neutral cannot qualify their assertion with one or two exceptions. They are obligated by the very pervasiveness of their position to defend punk rock. At the same time we should not think, because of our especially close look at the anti-Christian components of punk rock, that other forms of rock are now acceptable. Punk is simply an extreme version of a larger genre that is already unsuitable through similar, though less volatile, characteristics and origins.


In exploring the three planks of my position against the moral neutrality of music, I have attempted to show that music is far from being a benign instrument waiting to be used for God's kingdom. It, by itself, has the potential to convey messages that are positive or negative. Therefore I feel that the ideologies and values that a musical style transmits must be carefully scrutinized before it can be baptized with the Gospel. I have also hoped to demonstrate that rock music communicates values that are unsuitable for Christian synthesis.

Finally, keep in mind that defining the moral makeup and agenda of musical styles will not be as easy as it was for punk rock. This should not, however, discourage us from the important task of honestly evaluating the message of a musical medium with scriptural principles, in order that we might honor our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, with the form as well as the content of our music.


  • Bloom, Allan. The Closing of the American Mind. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1987.
  • Brown, Charles. The Art of Rock and Roll. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1983.
  • Cohn, Nik. Rock From the Beginning. New York: Stein and Day, 1969.
  • Frith, Simon. Sound Effects, Youth, Leisure and the Politics of Rock' n' Roll. New York: Pantheon Books, 1978.
  • Hebdige, Dick. Subculture, The meaning of Style. London: Routledge, 1979.
  • Manoff, Tom. Music A Living Language. New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1982.
  • Meyer, Leonard B. Emotion and Meaning in Music. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1956.
  • Morris, Leon. The First Epistle of Paul to The Corinthians Tyndale New Testament Commentaries, rev. ed. Leicester, England: Inter-Varsity Press, 1987.
  • Robertson, Archibald, and Alfred Plumber. A Critical Exegetical Commentary on The First Epistle of St. Paul to the Corinthians International Critical Commentary. Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1929.
  • Schaeffer, Francis. How Shall We Then Live. Old Tappan, NJ: Flemming Revell, 1976.
  • Schafer, William J. Rock Music. Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1972.
  • Stuessy, Joe. Rock and Roll, Its History and Stylistic Development. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1990.
  • Wicke, Peter. Rock Music. Translated by Rachel Fogg. Cambridge England: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

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