Listen with a Discerning Ear

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One of my favorite memories as a guitarist in a band is looking out at a crowded dance floor while playing an upbeat tune. I vividly remember the euphoric feeling of oneness with everyone in the room, many of them complete strangers, united by the rhythm and energy of the songs we were playing. This is one example of the power of music.


I also remember being blown away watching the original Star Wars in a theater when it was released in 1977. From the powerful brass fanfare announcing the opening title sequence to the triumphant processional accompanying the final medal ceremony, John Williams’ soundtrack set the emotional foundation for almost every scene of the movie. It’s safe to say that the music contributed to the success of Star Wars as much as the characters, story or special effects. This is another example of the power of music.

Every time I hear the Earl Klugh album Late Night Guitar, I am instantly transported back to the time when a college roommate recorded himself reciting the Periodic Table of Elements over the exquisitely smooth guitar music. He would then play the recording while sleeping so he could “subliminally” memorize the table for science class. (It didn’t work.) As another example of the power of music, not only does hearing these songs remind me of my friend and his creative recording, but also calls to my mind a mental picture of our dorm room and the arrangement of every piece of furniture in it, along with the entire “feel” of the place!

I’m sure many of you reading this article can cite personal examples that highlight the power a piece of music has had in your life. Music is many things to many people, but one reason it has the potential to have such an impact on us is that it communicates on a deeply emotional level. Further, it seems to speak to us personally. My examples are significant to me, but you have your own experiences with music that have had a lasting impression for you.

What is it about music that makes it so powerful?

Why Music?

Music isn’t simply some happy accident discovered when someone realized that hollowed-out coconuts could be used as drums. The Bible reveals that music pre-dates the first humans. The book of Job refers to angels—here called morning stars—singing at the creation of the earth (Job 38:4–7). This indicates that God is the creator of music, and that it has been an important part of His dominion in heaven.

It’s interesting that God chose to share music with us. Why did He? He could have kept it for Himself and the angelic hosts, but He did not—and that is significant.

I believe part of the answer lies in the fact that we are created in His image (Genesis 1:26–27). The Bible reveals that God has emotions and expresses love (1 John 4:10), compassion (Psalm 103:13), delight (Jeremiah 32:41) and anger (Ezekiel 5:13), among other feelings. God created humans in His image with this same need for emotional expression.

Music is one of God’s gifts to help us communicate on a deeper emotional level. It helps us express ourselves in a way mere words simply cannot, and is a communication of the heart. That’s one reason why it has the power to transcend language, geographical boundaries and time. It’s one of the reasons why the music composed in the 1780s by a young man named Mozart is still universally played and cherished.

But it’s precisely because music is a communication of the heart that followers of Jesus Christ should use spiritual discernment to make informed musical choices. Jesus said, “For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed evil thoughts, adulteries, fornications, murders, thefts, covetousness, wickedness, deceit, lewdness, an evil eye, blasphemy, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within and defile a man” (Mark 7:21–23).

Is all music good for us? For those who believe that no piece of music is truly good or bad—it simply “is what it is”—this question may seem strange or irrelevant. But for those who strive to use the Bible to guide them in making good personal entertainment choices, the question is not merely relevant, but crucially important. Does God’s word offer any help? Yes, it does.

Biblical Principles for Discernment

Instead of debating about what is good or bad about any particular genre of music, biblical principles can be applied to any single piece. Along with evaluating each composition against God’s instructions, we also need to honestly analyze what message is being conveyed and its effect on us as listeners.

Most popular music is a combination of melody, harmony, rhythm and lyrics. Each of these parts should be evaluated.

First, the music. Although the chords and beat usually conform to a standard musical structure, how those parts are constructed and played has everything to do with the “feel” of a song. This may be the source of the strong emotional connection to music, but it also can have a great effect on our behavior. For instance, I know from years of playing dance music in a band and being a DJ what rhythms inspire certain moods and the maximum amount of participation—and this response is largely predictable.

The same musical elements are used by musicians of almost all genres to convey a mood and elicit a response. One biblical principle that can be used to analyze this aspect of a piece of music is found in Jesus’ statement that “by their fruits you will know them” (Matthew 7:20). Although the context of this instruction refers to people, the principle can also apply to the fruit—or the results—of music.

Second, there are the lyrics of a song. One scripture to use in analyzing song lyrics is Philippians 4:8, where we are told to dwell on things that are true, noble, just, pure, lovely, of good report, virtuous and praiseworthy. This indicates that what we allow our minds to dwell on should be positive and uplifting.

Does this describe the lyrics of the songs you find yourself singing? It can be hard to admit that the music we love is not up to God’s standard. But for any music, there are worthwhile questions we should ask ourselves:

  • How does this music affect my mood?
  • What do I think about while listening to this music?
  • Does this music inspire/encourage me to be worldly?
  • Does this music influence me to right behavior or sin?

The good news is there is a wide variety of music that can be enjoyed. Because God created music, it can be a positive enhancement to our lives. But He also gave us His instructions to help us to know what He considers good in all aspects of life. Using these principles can help us to listen to music with a discerning ear.

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