December 2009 Print

The Problem with Modern Music

Dr. David A. White

This article is about addiction, an addiction that has hold of most people today. To give you an idea of how pervasive this addiction is, simply consider the mystical fervor with which most young people await the release of a new album by their favorite “band.” Modern music, for many of our youth, is the center of their being. It defines who they are and gives them a core of belief, meaning they do not so much dislike the faith and the Church; they are simply indifferent toward them. They are apathetic toward the most important aspects of life; they are not, however, apathetic to modern music.

As a teacher, I remember that the only two things I could not make fun of with my students were their cars and “their music.” Girlfriends, family, appearance, anything else—fair game. But cars and “their music” were entirely off limits. They would rise up in anger, ready to defend these elements of their existence. For this they would fight. Their “music” has them in its grip.

It is important to understand that this grip does not come from the lyrics. Most attacks or critiques of rock music concentrate on the fact that the lyrics are often abominable. And this I do not deny. But we already know that the lyrics will usually be bad. What I am concerned about is the music itself. It is not the lyrics which grip the young today so strongly. The lyrics do not create such passion, devotion, and addiction. It is the music itself.

When I began teaching, I was a graduate student at Indiana University. After years of study, I was very excited to teach my first classes. The arrangement there was that a senior professor would give a single lecture and then those of us who were Teaching Assistants would have smaller discussion groups throughout the week. The subject of these freshman courses, however, changed semester to semester, year to year. All senior professors could choose what they wanted to lecture on that semester. Some did “The Novel,” others did “Comedy,” and others focused on “19th-century British Poetry.”

I was assigned to a very peculiar senior professor who appeared to be a casualty of the 1960s. It was 1970. He told me the topic of his class that semester would be “The Modern Rock Lyric.” I was horrified. Of course, I had grown up with the music so I was familiar with it. I was not, however, prepared to teach it; I knew that there was nothing to say and thus nothing to teach. So my first assignment from this professor was to transcribe the lyrics to a stack of records so the lyrics could be duplicated and distributed.

I had assumed the music would be by Bob Dylan or the Beatles or some other of those popular artists who had some small claim to originality. No. I found myself facing recordings of bands such as Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen, Stoneground, Dan Hicks and His Hot Licks. For the space of a few days, I tried to transcribe those lyrics. I nearly lost my mind. After hour upon hour of sitting in front of my phonograph, I realized that many of the lyrics were simply incomprehensible. You simply could not understand what they were saying. Now of course the record companies often print the lyrics with albums—no matter how sick and disgusting the words are—because between the lousy enunciation and the level of noise, no one is expected to discern the actual words.

I started to wonder if the problem extended beyond the lyrics. And this was long before I was a Christian, much less a Catholic. I was an atheist who loved music. Even then I found modern music offensive. I knew even then that the “Christian rock” groups were just as offensive, even if the lyrics happened to reference God, Jesus, or God’s love. There was a problem that covered the whole range of “rock.”

Much later, after I had joined the Church, I began to look at this subject more seriously. I saw all of my students totally enmeshed in this music. It meant more to them than their God, their families, and their friends. So I set out to discover what was going on.

What we do know about music? In one sense, music has something in common with the traditional Catholic Church: it is universal. Music is absolutely universal. People speak of it as the universal language—and such a comment is not untrue. All people, everywhere, respond to music.

It is also a thing of the spirit. Scientifically, music is vibrations in the air sent off from an instrument, whether a human voice or a violin or a set of drums. These vibrations hit our ears and cause a reaction. But as with most things scientific, this is only a technical explanation and thus only a partial explanation. It only tells us so much. There is much more to the reality than simply the science thereof. The core of it is this: those vibrations set off a responsive vibration deep inside us that is not merely physical. Music is the most spiritual of all the arts. It is the least dependent on the material world. Music is somehow a bridge between this world and another higher one. We have all felt this at times. Anyone ever fortunate enough to have attended a Solemn High Mass with a schola knows there is nothing that is so moving or that penetrates so deeply into the soul as the sheer glory of that music.

So I am not only claiming that music is universal; I am claiming that music affects the soul in a way that other arts cannot. We know from recent experiments that good music can make plants grow more abundantly, that good music can cause cows to give more milk, that Mozart can help students improve their exam scores. We also know that music has healing properties. For those ill or troubled, or those who have some other difficulty in life, music can be a true means of release and a method of healing. The playwright is right: “Music hath charms to soothe the savage breast.”

We must then, however, allow the opposite: music has charms to inflame the breast and make it more savage. How does this work? St. Thomas and the Peanuts comic strip can both help us understand. Thomas tells us that the soul has different faculties; the soul can perceive things in a variety of different ways. And as these faculties apprehend what is given to it by the senses, knowledge comes to us. St. Thomas further says that the soul has its own appetites, such as the concupiscent and the irascible. The soul can know and the soul can be inflamed with certain passions, it can be stirred, for good or ill.

There is a delightful Peanuts comic strip from many years ago. Lucy van Pelt runs into the musician Schroeder, the little boy who plays his toy piano, as he is coming out of the record store, carrying a new album under his arm. Lucy asks him what he has bought. He replies, “I’ve just bought a new recording of the Brahms Fourth Symphony!” She asks him what he’s going to do with it. “I’m going to go home and listen to it.” She asks him if he means he’s going to whistle along with it. “No. I’m going to listen to it.” She asks him if he’s going to dance to it. “No. I’m going to listen to it.” She asks if he will march around the room while it plays. He says: “No. I’m going to listen to it.” As he walks away, Lucy says: “I’ll never understand these musicians.”

Keeping St. Thomas—and Peanuts—in mind, we can say that music appeals to us on three levels: the mind, the heart, and the lower passions. The levels correspond to the three basic elements in music, of which all music is comprised: melody, harmony, and rhythm. These three elements correspond to the three “centers” of every human being. God, who ordered and designed the universe, designed us with these “centers” in a certain order to tell us something about ourselves. As everything in God’s universe is ordered and hierarchical, so each of us as a human creature has been designed by God as ordered and hierarchical in our being. The intellect, the mind, is at the top and thus should rule over everything below. The heart, always considered the center of the emotions, is located at the center of our being. The seat of the lower passions is appropriately located below. We see this in order as we stand upright and we can also see the nature of the hierarchy in the design–the intellect must rule over the emotions, the intellect and the emotions must rule over the lower passions. The mind must discipline the heart, and the mind and the heart must discipline the lower passions. When all three work in order, we have a coherent and balanced human being.

Music, of necessity, must operate the same way. It also has three elements. Melody is primary, just like the human mind. Harmony is of the heart. Rhythm arouses the lower passions. If we take a short tour through music, we know that the first great music that Western man created came from the Mass: Gregorian Chant, designed to assist while the Mass was being celebrated. All great Western art comes from the Mass, the most glorious creation not designed by man, but given by God. It is a great work of art, from which flows other works of art. One of these outpourings was great music.

What is Gregorian Chant? It is nothing more or less than pure melody. This means it is pure mind—pure thought. The reason it touches us so profoundly is because it is great melody which goes directly to our soul. It is pure. There was a great controversy in the Church at the time of Palestrina, a great 16th-century composer. He introduced polyphony into Church music, more than one melodic line operating simultaneously. This resulted in note balanced against note, tone set against tone: harmony. It stirred up a huge, justifiable debate in the Church–was the added emotional energy that harmony produces appropriate for Church music? Palestrina added a new element to ecclesiastical music. Palestrina’s music is magnificent, but there were Church Fathers who, in their wisdom, understood that such music meant a profound change in the nature of the sounds that accompanied worship. Palestrina gave the Church great music, but he also initiated a process of change that has continued from that time, eventually leading to the plague of guitars that has afflicted modern worship.

Over time, rhythm began to play a more important role in both sacred and secular music. Rhythm being the skeletal structure, the pulse of energy, imaginative composers used it to generate new sounds and new dynamism in their compositions. An earthquake eventually shook the classical world. It was caused by another great composer who took rhythm and raised it from its supporting role as the skeletal frame of music. The great Ludwig von Beethoven elevated rhythm to a more dominant role in the musical structure. In his Fifth Symphony he uses a rhythmic motif to compose a whole grand musical work. I love this symphony; it is a masterpiece of the mind of man, a work of great genius. But in that composition, Beethoven the romantic and the revolutionary took rhythm and made it dominate to a much greater degree; he shifted the balance among the musical elements. And thus began a new era in the history of music.

The Romantics often put the heart above the head. Here was a romantic composer putting passion (rhythm) above everything else. Rhythm began to become a more important and defining power in musical composition. Melody began to be attenuated. Melody in itself is not easy to create. It is not easy to sit down and write a memorable tune; it requires hard work, sweat, and much thought (or divine inspiration). Harmony is easier, as note aligned with note will naturally cause an emotional response. And any idiot with a stick can create rhythm: all you need to do is pound on something.

The elements of music, which had been in order, became disordered. Over time, we began to see in the classical sphere an unleashing of rhythm as primary, leading eventually to the ugliness of much modern classical music. A typical symphony concert these days usually has three parts: a lovely overture to begin, a major symphonic work to conclude, and some ghastly piece of modern music sandwiched in between that the audience must endure to get to the reward of the final piece on the program. Often it is from one of the men who disposed of melody altogether, Schoenberg, Webern, Alban Berg, or one of their legions of disciples. They called their system the Twelve-Tone System. Recognizable melody is gone; harmony is gone with it. It is simply a collection of pre-determined mathematical progressions or random notes with innovative rhythms. Rhythm has taken possession of music.

The same thing has happened in popular music. Rhythm, that should be the servant of music and that is not objectionable in itself when in its proper place, has been crowned the king. Melody has disappeared, harmony has followed and rhythm triumphed. If you ever have any doubt about this, go live in a modern apartment building. The lyrics coming from the apartment next door do not make your walls shake; it is the insistent pounding beat of King Rhythm. The servant who has usurped the monarch’s position makes the noise that keeps you up at night.

Power rhythmic music had its place. Most march music is strongly rhythmic for the good reason that its intent has always been to stir up men marching into battle. Music dominated by rhythm inflames the passions. This is a necessary passion for men going to war; it is not a good thing for young people going out to socialize on a Saturday night. The rhythms of rock music (and now rap and hip hop) are aroused in an unhealthy way because they cannot be properly released. Inflamed passions need an outlet and we know what outlets young people find today. Those passions, once aroused and released, lead to sad consequences. It is neither soothing nor healing. No one leaves a string quartet concert intent on committing sin. We know the sins that follow from so many modern rock concerts. These sins connect directly with the music, specifically because the music, the disordered music, the endless incessant pounding beat, inflames those passions. The young who leave a rock concert or a live music club on a Saturday night are not thinking of attending Mass on Sunday morning; their impulses that have been stoked by the music are much more primal.

It does not matter the name of the group for their name is legion. Any idiot who can pick up a drumstick or plug in an electric guitar can call himself a “musician.” It is a kind of perverse Democracy in Music. As a result, “pop” music today consists of shouting, banging, shrieking and deafening noise. But fundamentally, the common denominator is the beat. Melody is dead and harmony is buried. With the death of harmony, the emotional bond between notes, the basics of dance vanish as well. Folk dance is gone, the minuet is a memory and the waltz, once considered questionable because of its intimacy, only survives in the concert hall. Now “dance” is leaping and banging and gross grinding. How could it be otherwise? The lower passions unleashed, savagery is inevitable. The beat rules. And it is listened to and pulsed to hour upon hour upon hour. Modern man simply surrenders himself to it and becomes a slave of his passions. And the record producers and the promoters and the talentless performers rake in billions of dollars.

A worship of the savage is entering every field of human endeavor today, including music and art. It is simply a rejection of Western art. It is a rejection of the Catholic Faith. All Western thought and art come from the Catholic Church; this is simply a historical fact. In order to destroy this, the enemies of the faith have turned toward savagery and primitivism. All art has become disordered and human nature follows–truth becomes lies, good changes to evil, beauty is transformed to ugliness.

And the so-called “artists” who create the false substitutes are admired not for their talent but worshipped because of their celebrity; they have become gods, especially for the young.

This is again a movement that began with the great Romantics, the time when the artistic disorder began to become pervasive. The artist became a substitute deity to be worshipped instead of God. It is seen as early as Franz Liszt, the great composer and master pianist who became the rage of Europe. Women followed him and threw themselves at him. It is the equivalent of young women today who throw their hotel keys on stage. The passion may dominate, but the poor withered soul is still there, crying for help, longing for meaning. The desire to be a celebrity or associated with celebrity is an attempt to find meaning. The rock “artist,” the musician, may become a substitute deity, along with the athletes, the movie celebrities; the poor lost souls are desperately seeking a connection with something or someone higher and greater. Sadly, they go searching in all the wrong places and worship all the false idols. It is pathetic, but it is inevitable, given the disordering of human nature. It is the logical consequence of a long process. The disordering of music has helped create a disordering of the human personality.

So what can be done? We face an overwhelming problem. We are up against the inversion of order. And we know who is at the root of such disorder; the one who first said non serviam. It was that being who first tried to turn the universe upside down, who continues his work, including in the field of music. So how do you fight it? It is not easy.

Criticism is largely useless since so many are simply entrenched in it. They are bathed in it, hour after hour. Fire must be fought with fire. First, pray unceasingly for your children and anyone else addicted to modern music. It is the most important thing you can do. On a practical level, the problem is an unleashing of rhythm. It must be fought with other rhythm, properly ordered rhythm within good serious music. If rhythm is what the young respond to, then music with great rhythmic propulsion is useful. Baroque music is a great aid in this regard: Vivaldi, Bach, Handel, etc. Baroque music is defined to a degree by energetic, powerful rhythm, but rhythm placed within a proper musical, and thus human, order. Even modern youth will respond to The Four Seasons or the Hallelujah Chorus.

Give them Beethoven, a musical genius. They will love the Fifth Symphony—and they should. It is a marvelous piece of music. Yes, in the big picture, there is a problem with what Beethoven unleashed. But if one has to choose between Beethoven and rock, the choice is obvious. Ravel’s Bolero may also be helpful; it is in one sense a study in incessant rhythm, but perhaps the introduction to it may lead a young listener to other Ravel pieces which are more varied and gloriously beautiful.

We must introduce beauty to these souls. They are cut off from the beautiful. It is the beautiful which heals and leads upward. These poor damaged souls need healing and need to be uplifted. And as with any addiction, the process of overcoming the compulsion is slow and difficult. Patience, that great virtue, is a necessity. Perhaps after a long healing process, the healed ears and the refreshed soul can sit down, intellect above heart above passions, and truly enjoy and appreciate something like a Mozart piano concerto where the music is ordered, and, as Lucy wished, we can whistle along to the melody and dance to the lovely harmony and march about to Mozart’s life-enhancing rhythms. Or we can simply be as Schroeder, listening with joy and thanking God for the great gift of glorious music.


Dr. David Allen White taught World Literature at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, for the better part of three decades. He gave many seminars at St. Thomas Aquinas Seminary in Winona, Minnesota, including one on which this article is based. He is the author of The Mouth of the Lion and The Horn of the Unicorn.