Can Sounds Be Evil?


I had a thoughtful student respectfully take issue with me over the topic of whether sound or instrumental music (music without lyrics) could be classified as moral. Here are his comments:

“In the last of the audio lectures [of Straight Thinking], I heard you make a passing remark by example about music. It was in the context of [logical fallacies]. You responded critically to the statement: ‘That music arrangement without lyrics is morally evil.’ I interpreted your comments as suggesting ‘Can sounds be evil? There are some people that think they can . . . ‘”

The student went on to make a case that instrumental music could be moral, based upon certain neuroscience data along with a particular understanding of Christian sanctification. Interestingly my RTB friend and colleague, Dr. Dave Rogstad, agrees with this basic view. Dave’s view is that instrumental music can play musical notes without lyrics that reflect a moral perspective.

Here are some of my thoughts about why I don’t think mere sounds or a series of music notes without lyrics can rightly be classified as moral (good or evil):

As a student and teacher of logic, I think to say that sounds or musical notes are moral is to commit a category mistake. This logical error in reasoning mixes ideas or categories that do not belong together. One might use the popular idiom that it’s like comparing apples and oranges. Only personal agents can be moral or immoral. Sounds or musical notes in and of themselves do not enter the moral sphere. Music must carry a message to make a moral statement that can then be evaluated as being good or evil.

I’m willing to accept that sounds or musical notes can impact a person’s brain state or state of being and can be perceived as aesthetically pleasing, displeasing, or possibly neither. But that is different than affirming that sounds can actually be in themselves moral or immoral. Certain musical notes might strike a person as being menacing, suggesting danger or a threat. But I think that only happens in a context where other aspects are included such as in a story line in a film, for example. Change the context and the musical notes may contribute to something being viewed as quite positive.

I think as creatures made in the image of God, humans possess unique aesthetic qualities and sensibilities. But it seems to me that having one’s brain state impacted by sound does not equate to moral influence. I guess I’m also skeptical that some of the neuroscience appealed to in such cases may carry unwarranted naturalistic and deterministic presuppositions. So I am highly skeptical of sounds or musical notes being able to impact genuine human moral volition.

My student, and my friend Dave Rogstad, expressed concern that certain musical genres even without lyrics (for example, loud rock music) could negatively impact the listener, and in the case of the Christian, compromise one’s goal of living a sanctified life. It seems reasonable to me that listening to a genre of music that includes lyrics, along with such factors as environment, presuppositions, past experiences, and anticipation can promote or encourage a lack of self control and therefore could be problematic in terms of Christian sanctification. But I think it is a cumulative experience, not an isolated impact of sound or musical notes. So again, the idea that mere sounds or notes in and of themselves can actually contain moral categories strikes me as a logical confusion of category.

Again, this article reflects some of my thoughts on this subject. I can respect the convictions of conscience on issues like this even if they are different from my own. Sanctification is something all Christians should take seriously, and they should give reflection to topics relating to it.

I recommend that Christians put the arguments and conclusions found in this brief article to the test of Scripture, reason, and conscience (1 Thessalonians 5:21) and accept or reject them accordingly.

  One thought on “Can Sounds Be Evil?

  1. November 7, 2017 at 10:24 am

    Good reflections here: how about mantras that are hummed (sung) or how about music such as was used in Korea as torture to our prisoners. Frequencies also have been adjusted and used in war time. But yes, I see what you’re saying about music in itself. Morality involves people and NOT inanimate things. Great Post.

    • November 7, 2017 at 10:54 am

      Thanks for your thoughtful comments, T.F.

      It seems mantras are sung with a religious doctrinal context in mind.

      Sounds or music used in a context of torture are often to disturb sleep or damage hearing. The sounds are inflicted by malevolent source (people).

      Thanks for reading my article and reflecting upon it.

      Best regards.

      Ken Samples

    November 7, 2017 at 12:07 pm

    Once “sound” is “music” it transcends mere acoustics and takes on some transcendent qualities of the moral sphere. Composers, musicians, performers and listeners know this intuitively. This is so because only humans (and angels apparently – at least at Christmas and Judgement Day) and God can appreciate sound as music. One could argue that adding this perception component stretches your topic “Is SOUND evil?”, which seems objective, into a more subjective category. However then one must distinguish between “sound” and “noise” and “music”…and good luck with that.
    (Love your blogs.)
    Nick Tavani

      November 7, 2017 at 12:16 pm

      I forgot to add this key thought: The concept of “natural evil” is wrong because morality is spiritual- which neither rocks nor animals, save humans, are – so, since physical vibration (i.e. sound) is a purely natural phenomenon it could be neither intrinsically good nor bad. If this is your point, then I support it.

    • November 7, 2017 at 1:15 pm

      Thank you, Nick, for your thoughtful comments.

      Ken Samples

  3. Rita
    November 13, 2017 at 3:55 pm

    An interesting topic and I would think that music or sound in and of themselves would be neither moral or otherwise. But I’ve heard somewhere that we human beings each emit a kind of sound from our very pores into the atmosphere, and that that particular sound each of us emits has the potential to influence others positively or negatively, depending on our moral and spiritual make-up, Could there be any truth to that? And if so, would that sound be considered moral or immoral? Or is all that sounding a little spooky and new age-y?

    • November 13, 2017 at 4:11 pm

      Hello, Rita. I haven’t heard the sound from pores perspective.

      But I think a gracious and loving attitude tends to really move people.

      Best regards.

      Ken Samples

  4. February 27, 2018 at 9:47 am

    An interesting, and thoughtful response — Thanks, Ken.

    I tend to agree with you, particular in that past associations with specific kinds of music could have a moral impact on people because of that association, rather than intrinsically.

    Should it be that a particular piece or excerpt of classical music were used in a horror film, to accompany a horrific event, that piece would not “become” evil, though it might recall evil to my mind, having heard the music in that context, and therefore influence me in a negative way. In fact, I do experience many monk chants in that way, for that very reason. To me, they sound not hauntingly beautiful, but eerily sinister, to this day.

    • February 27, 2018 at 4:36 pm

      Thanks, Lawrence.

      Ken Samples

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