In the past few years there have been several movies whose soundtracks made more money than the movies themselves. While it’s true that there have been bestselling soundtracks throughout the history of film, it is rare that so many have recently outsold their films. There is something telling in this. The music in a film is used to evoke feelings and responses in the audience. While film can be a powerful medium, good music properly used tends to be more powerful. Appropriate music can also make a movie more memorable. If music is used in movies to drive home a feeling or point or to make a scene become fixed in our brains, how does music function in our lives?
It seems to me that most people could easily put together a soundtrack for their lives. I know I could. I have often reflected on past experiences and found that a particular song or type of music perfectly expressed what I was feeling at that moment. Now maybe I’m just strange (actually, I know I’m strange) but I don’t think I’m alone in this. I have been with many people who, upon hearing a particular song, are instantly transported back to a different time in their life. Music often becomes a bookmark for a memory.
I think there is something in our make-up as creatures made by a God who loves music that causes this. If God loves music and has created us in his image why wouldn’t there exist in our very nature something that predisposes us to be musical beings? Beyond this question we are faced with the fact that the whole realm of human experience is affected by music.
Music can shape and define our moods. Music helps us to think, exercise, smile, vent frustration, or even express depths of love never imagined. Music enhances our joy when we are floating an inch off the ground and music can be our only friend and counselor when we are in the depths of despair. The slaves sang gospel tunes which gave them hope in hopeless times and enabled them to endure suffering with great patience. On the flipside the Nazis had their music too. Hateful hymns which were used as propaganda. Music can be used for both good and evil. (Notice that I didn’t say that music itself is good or evil but that it can be used for good and evil.)
If this is true how do we determine how the music that surrounds us is being used? How do we discern if a song is being used for noble or debased purposes? Or at an even more basic level what criteria do we use to determine the quality of music? How do we know if a song is good or bad in a technical sense? Even more importantly, if the things I’ve said above about music’s communicative poignancy are even remotely true, how do we listen to music in order to hear the heartbeat of our culture? We must ask if the music we take in is forming a fitting soundtrack for our lives.
I think the first step is to open our ears and minds to the fact that there is more being said than appears on the surface. If as Christians we fail to cultivate our awareness of the sonic dialogue taking place all around us, we automatically relegate ourselves to the realm of cultural irrelevancy. A realm which many people already assume we belong to. Cultural irrelevancy is not a biblical option for Christians and neither is the mindless consumption of any art form. With that said let’s look at some ways to more fully develop our discernment of music.
Moving Beyond the Basics
Much has been written both on this website and in the pages of Critique and Notes from Toad Hall by Denis, Margie and others about the basic issues of discernment. In fact, if you are reading this and you have not read Denis’ helpful discussions on the fundamentals of Christian discernment stop reading immediately and check those out in the Discernment Center.
The four basic questions for developing discernment are as follows: What is being said? What do I agree and disagree with? Why do I agree and disagree with these things? What is my response? As we approach any type of art, these are the questions we should ask to begin thinking about a particular piece. We must be even more intentional about asking these questions when it comes to music. It is easy to turn our brains off while listening to music. Often we let music just form the background of life. There is nothing wrong with this as long as we are aware of what the background is composed of and how it could potentially affect us. Questions of discernment aren’t intended to be a buzz-kill that suck all enjoyment out of listening to our favorite songs. On the contrary, I have found that the closer I listen to music in order to figure out what’s going on within the world of a particular song, I tend to enjoy the music more. What I would like to do is help flesh out these basic questions a bit more so that, in asking good questions about the music we are hearing we will come to love it more and appreciate more deeply the soundtracks of the lives which surround us.
What is Being Said?
This question helps us to see the basic content of a song. What’s the message? Finding the answer to this question is sometimes a daunting task. Generally music doesn’t communicate through a series of propositional statements; in fact the best music won’t. Much of the communication that takes place in the lyrics of a song is poetic. Songwriters compose verbal pictures to express their individual messages. While listening to music, we are bound to encounter repetition, symbolism, irony, pun, sarcasm, allusion, understatement, hyperbole and other rhetorical devices. We should be prepared to interpret these things just as we would if they appeared in literature or even in a daily conversation. To put this into Christian terms it might be helpful for us to interpret songs much like we would a parable or a psalm, instead of the way we would approach a didactic passage of Scripture.
The fact that songs are primarily meant to be heard and not read will affect how we understand what is being said. Most of the time it is just as important to ask how something is being sung as what is being sung. An artist will often change the entire meaning of a verse simply by the manner in which they sing it. Tone of voice and certain inflections may communicate more than the actual words. It is possible for a vocalist to sing the words “I love you” while they are actually saying, “I hate you” and vice versa. Is the musician singing in a hushed voice or is he screaming? Does she sound elated or as if she is crying? Is the voice dripping with sarcasm or ringing with the hollow sound of apathy? These are just some of the questions we may need to wrestle with as we try to understand the message of a song. Indeed, some songs may have multiple emotions contained within them.
It’s also important that we don’t just listen for a message but that we strive to hear the message that the artist themselves are actually trying to communicate. Many people hear what they want to hear instead of hearing what the musician wants them to hear. Christians aren’t immune to this and sometimes are more prone to cast a hasty judgment on a song or musician. A classic example of this is from several years ago when Joan Osborn asked in one of her songs, “What if God was one of us?” Many in the Christian church reacted strongly to this song and condemned it as blasphemy. However, a major component of blasphemy is intent and it seems more likely to me that Osborn was more intent on exploring a serious question than on blaspheming the Christian God. We must exercise extreme caution in this area and ask first what the musician is trying to say.
All this is not to say that the lyrics of a song are irrelevant. Good songwriters labor over their lyrics diligently and thus are purposeful in their selection of the words they sing. Since these people put such care into the writing of their songs, we should put at least an equal amount of care into listening to their songs.  However, it might be helpful to listen to a song before ever reading the lyrics so that we hear the singers vocal interpretation of the words before we assign our intellectual interpretation.
Do I Agree or Disagree?
After examining the message of a song and the way that message is communicated then we can ask what we feel and think about that message. Where do we agree and disagree? We should strive to search first for the areas that we agree with. It is an unfortunate fact that many people have a stereotypical view of Christians as judgmental nay-sayers. But as people who believe that all mankind is made in the image of God, we should be quick to seek reflections of that image in the music we hear. As people who believe in grace, we should be able to affirm those reflections even though they won’t be perfect. If we expect songs to reflect truth perfectly we will be sorely disappointed and continually frustrated even with musicians who are Christian.
However, it is also a fact that as we listen to the music of Babylon we will encounter things we disagree with. It’s important to identify these elements so that we can give an honest evaluation of the piece of art. While this is true it is also possible to disagree agreeably. This is where many of us go astray. We cannot assume that a song is rubbish because we disagree with its main message. It is entirely possible for a musician to create a song that is creative and technically excellent while its theme is something we can’t agree with. Much of the music we encounter will contain both things we agree with and things we disagree with and it is nothing short of intellectual dishonesty to deny the reality of either.
Why Do I Agree and Disagree?
This question is obviously connected with the previous one but is probably more important. We should have reasons why we agree and disagree with things. “Just because” is not a suitable reason and it doesn’t promote intelligent interaction with a song or any other art form. As Christians, we should be prepared to support our opinions with reasons. This is especially true in a world where people assume that Christians have no valid reasons for holding the beliefs they do. In particular we should avoid making judgment calls based upon our preferences.
When it comes to any art form we all have things that we like and dislike. Whether it’s film, literature, painting, architecture or music we all have our personal preferences. This is actually a very good thing. We are diverse beings and our diversity shines forth both in the art that we create and the art we appreciate. For good or bad our preferences tend to function as internal biases when we approach a particular work of art. We should keep this in mind as we approach a song or style of music. If we are to have any hope of honestly evaluating the music we hear, we must be aware of how our own preferences predispose us to like or dislike any given piece of music.
The basic issue at stake here is the fact that a song or style of music is not good simply because we prefer it or bad because we happen to not prefer it. Let me illustrate. Besides the work of Johnny Cash and a few songs by other artists, I don’t prefer country music. For years I turned my nose up at country in general and declared it garbage. There are several problems with this type of attitude, the first and foremost being that it is not concerned with what’s true but merely with what I like. There is a large body of country music that is technically excellent and when I declared that all country was garbage, I was elevating my preference above reality and making it the ultimate standard of judgment. Another problem with this is that it is a denial of the God-given talent and abilities of different people.
Preferences are not a solid basis by which to evaluate music. We must have real reasons for agreeing and disagreeing with a piece of art. When we evaluate music we are asking what in a song reflects truth and untruth. If we base such questions on our personal preference we exalt our preference to place of ultimate authority. As Christians we recognize Scripture as the ultimate authority for our belief and practice and we should also root our assessment of an individual piece of art work in the same place. If we agree with a musician’s message it should be because it is in accord with what the Bible says. By this I don’t mean that every song must be an exposition of a biblical theme or passage (although some may be). We can agree with a musician when there is a general consensus between their message and the Bible’s about any given subject or about reality in general. We have to disagree with a musician’s message when it is inconsistent with what the Bible declares. We need to be able to explain our position as well. Simply saying, “because the Bible says,” doesn’t communicate anything besides the possibility that we might not actually have a clue what the Bible says about that certain subject. We should be slow to make any statements about an artist being right or wrong when they are dealing with subjects that the Bible doesn’t directly address.
What is My Response?
After we evaluate a song to see what’s being said and where we agree and/or disagree with its message, we must think about how we are to respond to this song. Our biblical mandate as Christians is to live as salt and light in this world. Therefore, when it comes to music we should not merely be consumers of culture but rather people who engage and in many ways embrace culture. For this reason we should think through how we will respond to the different messages that are floating through the airwaves.
A response to a song or musician might take many forms and there may be several valid responses to the same piece of music. The important thing here is that we are seeking to have a Christian response to a particular piece of work and not the Christian response. Christians will differ on how to respond to different works of art and there is nothing wrong with that. The most basic response is simply articulating your answers to the first three basic discernment questions. While this may initially seem insignificant, it is actually a huge step. Many people, both Christian and non, do not practice discernment on a regular basis. The question of discernment often falls into two categories: this is good so I’ll listen, or this is bad so I won’t listen. Now those certainly may be two legitimate responses to some art, but if we limit ourselves to these two options we will tend to develop narrow and superficial parameters which define for us what good and bad music is. To do this is to ignore the intricate complexities of art, culture, and human communication. This in turn leads to a truncated view of what it means to live as an image-bearing child of God in this spectrum of his creation.
Once we are able to verbalize our thoughts and feelings on a song or artist, we can seek to have intelligent conversation with other people. When we know why we like what we like and why we dislike what we dislike, we can discuss our reasons with others and learn what they like and dislike and why. We will be able to enter into their world by experiencing their soundtrack.
One thing Christians should avoid is using music as a method of subterfuge. There are many who promote using songs and music as a cloaked and manipulative tool for evangelism. When we do this we enforce the idea that authorial intent is of no consequence and that we can turn the message of a song into whatever we want it to be (one example of this is turning a love song into a sonnet for the Savior). Another thing that happens is that we communicate to people the idea that “spiritual” things are all that matters, the other matters of life are unimportant and unspiritual. When this takes place, we are actually promoting a Platonic worldview rather than a biblical one.
By listening to the music of Babylon we will most certainly find much common ground between ourselves and unbelievers. We should respond to this by respectfully acknowledging that as people created in God’s image, they too have something valuable to communicate and contribute to the world. We can discuss with them the areas of agreement, why they exist, and the significance of their existence. However, we must never construct false bridges simply to cross over them and drop a gospel bomb on their heads. In the endm this trivializes the person, the reality of the musician’s message, and the realm of human experience. It also trivializes the gospel.
What Does Evil Sound Like?
I have had many conversations with well-meaning Christians about music in which they tell me that they can’t listen or allow their children to listen to a certain song or style of music because it sounds evil. As the saying goes, “If I had a nickel for every time I’ve heard that, I’d be a rich man.” The idea that certain music sounds evil has several inherent problems. The first one is simply that it doesn’t encourage intelligent discussion and engagement of the music. This statement is usually used by people as a sort of trump card that ends the discussion. While it may be unintentional, this statement does give a person permission to turn their brains off. Even worse it allows and can lead to the demonization of a musician or an appreciator of that musician. The second major problem with statements like this is that they are unbiblical. When people tell me that a particular song or type of music sounds evil I ask them to show me where the Bible gives a description of what evil sounds like. I am still waiting for someone to show me. The fact is that the Bible doesn’t give us a definition or description of what evil sounds like. When we label particular sounds or instruments as evil or good we are basing that judgment on our own preferences and cultural biases and not upon the authority of Scripture.
This is not to say that music can’t be used for evil purposes or that some people might attempt to make music which they think sounds evil. I gave the example above of the music of the Nazi party which was used for evil purposes and there are many musicians, particularly in the genre of death metal, who attempt to produce an “evil sound.” The issue with all examples like this is not syncopated rhythm, distorted guitar, chanting, or whatever element may be a cause for concern; but with intent. What is the musician seeking to communicate? How are they seeking to affect their hearers? It seems to me that it is best to view music as a tool. A hammer is not good or evil. It can be used to build a house or to bludgeon someone to death. The reality is that music is an incredibly powerful tool which is all the more reason we should seek to practice discernment when it comes to music.
What Makes a Song Good or Bad?
At this point you may be saying to yourself, “This is all good and helpful but this guy still hasn’t told me what makes a song good or bad.” I haven’t done this because I believe that the issues that we’ve discussed above are more important than whether or not a song is good or bad. The above questions go to the heart of the matter whereas questions of whether a song is good or bad, while important, are not the best for listening to the soundtrack of a person’s life. If someone is sharing their heart with us through music, the worst thing we can do is tell them that the music they love stinks. There is no more sure-fire way to end the conversation.
This is not to say that artistic quality isn’t important. It is. However, we must remember to be gracious when evaluating the quality of a piece of art that is meaningful to a person. The interpretation and evaluation of art can be subjective on various levels. There is much truth in the idea that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. In fact, if we are entirely honest with ourselves I’m sure we will all find that we love particular songs, movies, paintings and poems that aren’t necessarily “good” in the definitive sense.
With this said there are some standards by which we can judge the objective quality of a piece of art. Francis Schaeffer lists four areas that we should examine in order to determine the worth of a particular piece of art: Technical Excellence, Validity, Intellectual Content, and Integration of Content and Vehicle. 
Technical Excellence. This can be measured by the level of skill demonstrated in a particular piece of artwork. When we are talking about the technical excellence of music we will want to look at the skill of the musicians. Does the music have good rhythm and tempo? Do the parts played by different musicians in the band blend together well or is the music disjointed? Is there creativity and diversity displayed in the music or do all the artist’s songs sound the same? How is the lyrical quality of the song? Is there good poetic composition? Are the words meaningful or simplistic? Does the singer use their voice well or could anyone sing what he sings?
Validity. When Schaeffer mentions validity as a criterion by which we evaluate a piece of art, he is asking whether or not an artist is being true to herself and her world view or whether she makes her money simply for money and acceptance. When it comes to the area of music we might ask whether a musician’s music is original or sounds like whatever the popular trend is at the moment. Is this musician making the music he wants to make or the music that the industry is telling him he has to make to be accepted and successful? If the latter is true we might conclude that the musician’s art is not good based on the fact that it is entirely driven and molded by commercialism. This is not to say that music ceases to be good if it becomes popular. Many people make this mistake and become musical snobs by rejecting anything that is popular. The popularity of the music is irrelevant; the question is why was it made? If it was made solely for the sake of being popular, then we should be critical of it.
Intellectual Content. The question here is concerned with what the artist is communicating about their world view. What are they saying about the way they perceive and interpret the world around them and reality in general? What message about life does this song convey? How does it tell us we should live? All art is a form of expression so we should be concerned with what is being expressed. It is important to remember that there may be occasions when we must affirm the technical excellence of a song while at the same time we disagree with the intellectual content (or vice versa). As has been noted above, the issue at stake for the Christian is whether or not the message of a song is congruent with the message (or general consensus) of the Bible.
Integration of Content and Vehicle. We discussed this criterion somewhat when we looked at the question, “what is being said?” What’s at stake here is whether or not there is an internal consistency in the song between what it’s communicating and how it’s communicating it. To quote Schaeffer, “For those art works which are truly great, there is a correlation between the style and content. The greatest art fits the vehicle that is being used to the world view that is being presented.”  In regards to music we will have to take the time to think through the various vehicles used. Often, music is nuanced and not straightforward in its presentation of the message.
Putting It All Together
We’ve covered a lot of ground in this article. The purpose has not been to overwhelm you or make listening to music a chore. The best way to start putting all these issues of discernment into action is by going back to the basic questions. What is being said? Where do I agree and disagree? Why do I disagree and disagree? What is my response? With a little practice, you will find that the rest of these questions aren’t as burdensome as they may seem. The added benefit of all this is that you begin to enjoy your music and the music of those around you when you start to listen more closely. The soundtracks of people’s lives are playing all around you. Will you take the time to listen in?
What is Being Said
1. What are the words to this song?
2. Are the words well written?
3. Is the music well written?
4. How does the way in which the words are sung affect the meaning of the words in this song?
5. Is there any repetition, symbolism, irony, pun, sarcasm, allusion, understatement, hyperbole, etc. used in this song? If so, is it used to good effect? What is the artist trying to achieve by using these?
6. What is the message of the song? (Notice that this is a much different question than #1.)
7. Is the style of musical presentation appropriate for the message of this song?
8. Is there anything in particular about the words or music of this song that stick out to you? What? Why? Do you think the musician intended for this to stick out? Why?
9. What is the emotional flavor of this song (happy, angry, melancholy, flippant, etc.)? How is this communicated through both lyric and music?
10. Do you think the message of this song is directed at a particular audience? If so who?
11. How might the message of this song be misunderstood?
12. How does this song relate to the rest of this musician’s body of work? Is there any significance to this relationship?
13. Does it seem that the musician had an agenda in making this song? If so what do you think it was? How does this affect how you hear the message of the song?
14. Is there a particular world view being espoused in this song? If so what is it?
15. How might the message of this song resonate with a person you know? How might it fit into the soundtrack of their life or even yours? How might it reflect or contribute to their worldview?
16. What do I Agree or Disagree with? Why?
17. Do you like this song or not? Why?
18. Do you like the words to this song but not the musical presentation? Why?
19. Do you like the musical presentation of this song but not the words? Why?
20. Is this a song you’re inclined either to prefer or not to prefer? How does this affect the way you hear this song?
21. Do you agree or disagree with the basic message of this song? Why?
22. How is the message of this song in agreement with the biblical description of reality? How is it in conflict with the biblical message?
23. Is the message of this song dealing with an issue that the Bible has explicit teaching on? How does this affect how we should evaluate the message?
24. What might be some different assessments of the song by other Christians and non-Christians?
25. Since the songwriter is made in the image of God, what of this image comes through in this song?
What is Your Response
1. What is the best and most concise way to communicate your thoughts and feelings about this song?
2. In what ways might this differ, depending on whether you were talking with a believer or an unbeliever?
3. Is this a song that you would or would not recommend to others? Why?
4. Are there certain people you might recommend this song to while not recommending it to others? In this case who would you recommend it to and why?
5. What can you learn from this song and songwriter? Does this song give you a new perspective on a particular issue or subject?
6. If this song was made by an unbeliever, what is the common ground between their world view and yours?
7. What’s the significance of this world view? How might this common ground help you to better communicate with other people, particularly unbelievers?
8. Is the body of work from this musician or group of musicians worth supporting financially? Would you buy more of their albums? Why or why not?
Source:  If a CD you’re listening to doesn’t have lyrics in the liner notes, you may be able to find the words online.  These four standards of judgment can be found in Francis Schaeffer’s booklet, Art and the Bible. I have merely paraphrased the points he makes.  Schaeffer, Art and the Bible, p. 47.
This article was written by Travis Scott and published by Ransom Fellowship Ministries (a ministry dedicated to developing discernment and deepening discipleship). Used with permission.