Should Christians listen to secular music?

Granted we are in “thread drift” with this discussion, I thought I would provide a sample from Scott Aniol that gives some background to what I was arguing above:

Pop culture exists only with mass media, which did not exist then. The only forms of culture that existed were high culture (the culture of the concert hall) and folk culture (the culture of common people). Most hymn tunes (then and now) are written in folk traditions. So even when people did compose new tunes, they were still in the same tradition of tunes that came before.

This is from this link.

You can search the term on Scott’s site and read more if you like.

The sheet music before the phonograph would be a kind of mass media, so don’t hold me to the phonograph as a terminus ad … something?? can’t remember the term. Starting point, how about that?

Back to the thread, its not really a question of, “should a Christian listen to secular music” - in some secular contexts, usually no problem. As worship music? No, not without adaptation, and some secular music can’t be adapted.

Don Johnson
Jer 33.3

19th Century pop music was more than just barroom music. It was what was sung around the parlor piano in the Wilkinson household.


Pop music existed long before the phonograph. It existed in sheet music (Stephen Foster anybody?), parlor pianos, and player pianos. If pianos were unavailable then folks picked up a violin\fiddle or a penny whistle.

I had a really, really hard time thinking that any barroom songs in the Wild West would be anything other than Pop music. I mean, Revolutionary and Civil War soldiers had their own ditties and songs to pass the time. So limiting the definition of pop music to the radio or the phonograph seems to be a little…disingenuous. SNIP

Hoping to shed more light than heat..

If we wonder what popular music was like many centuries ago, good references would include the 11th-13th century collection of songs known today as “Carmina Burana.” There were dances and drinking songs, yes, and to be sure we don’t know what the meter or melody would have been (though Carl Orff did a wonderful job trying), but it is yet a good picture of medieval society. Also of note is a collection of klezmer-style Psalm singing in Hebrew that I own, which parallels the habit of Jews of dancing with the Torah scrolls, and quite frankly what God told His people to do in Psalms 149 and 150.

Coming forward to hymns, it’s worth noting that not only did Booth borrow popular songs, yes some from the taverns, but also that a lot of the older hymns do indeed use similar structure to the music used for the dances of the time. And that’s appropriate in my book—if I take Psalms 149 and 150 seriously, it tells me that somehow, God’s Person and His Word ought to occasionally communicate not just with heart and mind, but also body. The question isn’t whether the music fits a certain genre—be it bluegrass or “pop” (however well or ill defined), but whether the song communicates the Word of God to the people of God in a winsome way.

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

Examples - don’t judge me!

I enjoy or have enjoyed:

  • The music (and the film) Evita
  • The music (and the film) The Phantom of the Opera
  • Pink Floyd
  • A lot of music from the 40’s, 50’s, 60’s & early 70’s

I’m appalled at your remarks! I would say more, but I must first separate from you, and then find an intermediary to relay my messages, lest I be complicit in your sin.

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and works in State government.

Tyler, I can’t be the middleman for you on this issue. Sorry!

JohnE, I see your point. Thanks for sharing, and I will patiently wait for you to join all three of us on the right side of the musical divide. ;)

"Our task today is to tell people — who no longer know what sin longer see themselves as sinners, and no longer have room for these categories — that Christ died for sins of which they do not think they’re guilty." - David Wells

Here’s a solution. If we want to know what kind of secular music is permissible for Christians to listen to all we need to do is have the music experts give us a list of secular music that fits Biblical guidelines. Kind of a musical Torah that would answer the question “Rabbi, can we listen to this?” #sarcasm

"Some things are of that nature as to make one's fancy chuckle, while his heart doth ache." John Bunyan

I’d be Tyler’s middleman, but I think he’s separated from me, and vice versa, many times. :^)

Regarding Ron’s idea, I’d actually welcome commentary on what kind of songs would be acceptable under, and which would violate, Biblical guidelines. For my part, if a song glorifies fornication or severe intoxication, or blasphemes God, that’s where I stop listening. No “Aqualung” or “Imagine” for me, though the musicianship is very good. Most hip-hop is out for similar reasons.

Musically, my line is not well defined, but is more or less when the tune just starts irritating me. Thrash metal qualifies, as does light rock. The worst is the modern habit of more or less sighing into the microphone while the instrumentalists are more or less filling an auditory void. Gack.

A more specific thing; there are some composers and groups who seem to think that musicality is a matter of adding more instruments playing about the same thing without any particular emphasis on how harmonies work together, or whether there are harmonies at all. It’s not sin, it’s just ineffective musicianship and composing.

And musicals? I agree with John regarding most musicals of the past 40 years or so. Bombast replaced musicality and subtlety, IMO. (note; no H there, I confess)

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

What would Frank Garlock do?

That’s what I ask myself!

Many of Garlock’s assertions are factually incorrect.

1) Mr. Garlock asserts that all the planets are “exactly” in octaves (by this he means that each planet is exactly twice the distance to the sun as the planet next to it). While Pythagoras would be proud (this is exactly the kind of relationship he looked for and taught), Garlock is dead wrong. In fact, the distances between planets are not even close to matching the so-called “octave” ratio. The ratio between Venus and Mercury to the sun is 1.87, not 2.0. Earth to Venus is 1.38. Mars to Earth is 1.52. Jupiter to Mars is 3.41. It does not get better from there either.

2) The overtones discussion is hopelessly incorrect by today’s standards though it would have been very close to what Pythagoras believed. Pythagoras did in fact hear a few overtones (probably not the third but definitely the octave and fifth). He also saw something very mystically significant about those overtones. But we know today that there are numerous overtones that occur, not just the three notes of the triad as Garlock suggests. Those overtones vary based on the instrument and even the way the instrument is played.

3) This is picky, but even the ratios Garlock refers to and the frequencies on his chart are more relevant to the days of Pythagoras than today. In fact, the piano that was played in his illustration would not have used a pure 3:2 ratio for the perfect fifth or the exact frequencies on his chart unless they went to the trouble of doing a special, old-style tuning before the lecture.

How does Garlock make mistakes like this? My guess is he got his information from the screwball New Age book he kept quoting in these clips. If you read New Age books, you quickly realize those writers are not so big on backing up their assertions.

Besides the factual errors, there are more serious errors that arise when you try to mix Christianity with New Age mysticism (which is in turn heavily influenced by ancient mysticism). For example:

1) Even if the planets have the distance ratios Garlock asserts, why are we to make an assumption that the distance between planets has anything to do with music? That was the way the Greeks thought, but that kind of thinking has no Biblical merit.

2) His assertion that the ancient Chinese understood that God was a Trinity because of overtones is not just far-fetched but also theologically careless. Where is there any Biblical basis for this kind of assertion?

3) Garlock loses credibility quickly when he quotes his New Age book in saying that voices “rich in overtones provide a benefit to those that hear them.” That is not science and it is not theology. It is just New Age garbage.

Is Garlock a New Age nut? Absolutely not. Is he a theological heretic to mark and avoid? I don’t believe that either. He is however a man who is a bit careless when he goes looking for sources to back up his assertions about music. If the best he can come up with is books written by New Age loons, he would be better off to reexamine his assertions.

We need to remember that Frank Garlock was THE SOURCE for the fundamentalist war against rock music. Questioning any of his assertions was not allowed. Countless Christian school science fair projects sought to prove his claim that rock music killed plants. When they failed, students were often told it was their fault.

While his now embarrassing book and claims have been swept under the rug, the resulting prejudice against “popular” music remains. People are still condemning back beats and tritones (the devil’s interval) as sinful or at least leading to sin.

"Some things are of that nature as to make one's fancy chuckle, while his heart doth ache." John Bunyan

[Ron Bean]

Countless Christian school science fair projects sought to prove his claim that rock music killed plants. When they failed, students were often told it was their fault.

Were the students actually allowed to play the music while conducting these experiments? (Otherwise how were these “experiments” conducted?)

I’m picturing some bemused Christian school kids blasting Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin in their classrooms or bedrooms, while assuring their horrified teachers and/or parents that it’s O.K., it’s all for the cause of Science.

I had been in the “popular” music business before I was saved at age 28. I went from that into teaching in a Christian school -n the late 70’s when Garlock was still a prime source. As you can imagine I had tons of questions but learned quickly to keep my mouth shut if I wanted to keep my job.

We rationalized the students use of rock music in their experiments as permissible because Dr. Garlock had listened to it to do his research and this was “science”. When their experiments failed we assumed that they hadn’t done it the proper way since Garlock had to be right.

"Some things are of that nature as to make one's fancy chuckle, while his heart doth ache." John Bunyan

….loud rock music kills plants, please explain to me how there is anything living on the campus of my alma mater, especially around frat row. Or any secular campus, really. And on the light side, don’t I remember reading that the “walk on the sidewalks rule” was because they were having trouble keeping grass growing in Greenville? Maybe it wasn’t the red clay after all…. :^)

Seriously, I wonder if I ought to read some of Garlock’s work simply to understand it, as it seems to be tremendously influential. Do you remember any titles, Ron?

And interestingly, I remember doing a song from “Patch the Pirate Club” where the first half of it was in a tango beat. I half wonder whether Ron Hamilton did that, and a bunch of other stuff, simply to tweak his father in law. Either that, or there are so few dancers in those circles that nobody noticed and just thought it was a cool melody.

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.