Music and Morality, part 2

Picking up the theme of music and morality, I want to jot down a few thoughts about how to talk to people about a morality of music when they lack the self-awareness needed in general for conversation about ethics, or when they lack the self-awareness in this particular area for an Ignatian discernment of spirits.

Lacking interior, subjective evidence, one must point to objective, sensible data.  And the first of these is that people get angry if you call their music bad—very angry.  People don’t blow a stack if you hate the seafood they love, or if you hate their favorite baseball team—most people, that is—but if you say you hate their music, those are fighting words.  Their anger shows that they identify their own person with the music; the music is an outward sign of what kind of person they are, so that an attack on the music is an attack on the person.  (Paradoxically, my conversation partners have proceeded from anger to the assertion that music is morally indifferent, a mere matter of taste.)

But it is probably not a good strategy to attack a man’s music, let him get angry, and then point to his anger as a sign that he is wrong.  No, better to point far away, to others whom he sees as very, very other.

So a second datum is the fact that extremes in music create recognizable populations:  heavy metal fans dress and walk alike and are often pale and thin; huge belt buckles and hats pick out the serious country music buffs; rap consumers fit a stereotype; and on it goes.  Along with the visible similarities go internal resemblance:  heavy metal folks are brooding and angry, rap people are bouncy but irascible, country music people are cheerful and loyal, and so on.

Few things create visible populations the way music does:  drugs do, jobs can, religious vocations do.  Sports don’t, foods don’t—you can’t pick out baseball fans from hockey fans in a crowd, or lovers of Italian cuisine as opposed to French cooking.  Living in a certain region can produce a particular “look,” but the effects of music will override regional differences.

The fact that extremes in music create visible populations of people who morally resemble one another indicates that less extreme musical forms—light jazz, pop, classical music, and so on—are also forming populations in less visible ways.  After all, if factor X produces an extreme difference when applied heavily, wouldn’t factor X produce some difference if applied more lightly?  If extreme musical forms like heavy metal produce extreme visible and moral differences, then wouldn’t jazz or Baroque music produce real but less extreme moral differences in men?  Certainly, the hypothesis that music is morally indifferent doesn’t predict the observed results of the extremes.

In fact, the observed facts say that music is a powerful moral force:  it is used in ecstatic cults for a reason!

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Author: Dr. Holmes

Dr. Jeremy Holmes teaches Theology at Wyoming Catholic College. He lives in Wyoming with his wife, Jacinta, and their eight children.

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