The Place of Music in Our Relationships

Please hold this thought: The music we listen to in private will affect our interactions in public.

In my last post for this blog, I wrote about the spiritual discipline of reading. I advocated that we read purposefully, opening our minds to diverse voices and worldviews. And, I argued, this should happen in community, among people who have proven themselves worthy of emulation. Reading, like almost every other activity, is communal. No man is an island/every man is a piece of the continent, wrote the poet John Donne.

Even if we choose to avoid reading, we cannot remain a tabula rasa (clean slate). To live is to be shaped and, by extension, to shape others. The Russian elder St. Seraphim of Sarov believed we impact each other even with our innermost thoughts. If this is true, how much more the books we read and the films we watch? How much more the blogs we visit (including this one), and the theology we affirm?

How much more the music we listen to?

Which brings me back to this: The music we listen to in private will affect the people we relate to in public.

Sometimes we tell ourselves that certain activities will not have a bearing on our spiritual formation. How could an act as private as pushing in ear buds and listening to music affect our character, much less the character of those around us?

But music has more power than we realize. I remember asking John D. Martin, compiler of Hymns of the Church (first published in 2010), why he spent so much time and energy compiling yet another hymnal. He answered, “I have seen an impressive correlation between the church and its hymnal. Sometimes the most serious members of a church can’t get past a narrow ‘save me’ gospel, partly because their church uses hymnals dominated by cheap gospel songs.”

Our choice of music, from the music we sing in church to the music we listen to in private, has an extraordinary shaping effect on us. And if John Donne and St. Seraphim were correct, that shaping effect extends to those around us. In light of that, are we justified in insisting that our music choices are an inalienable right over which we alone have jurisdiction?

Granted, what we take in, whether music or literature or anything else, affects us all differently. When I read the dialogue in John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, the ribald parts do not stay in my mind to create a pitfall (unlike a friend of mine who burned it halfway through). I come away remembering the pathos in Steinbeck’s storytelling and the masterful characterization of the Joad family. But other books I have tried reading, such as Ken Follett’s Pillars of the Earth, are too graphic for my sensibilities. No doubt your conscience allows what mine forbids and vice versa. “Why is my freedom being judged by another’s conscience?” Paul might ask, were he alive today (1 Corinthians 10:29).

Yet freedom of conscience does not negate honest questions, especially when it comes to deeply shaping activities. Regarding music, here are three such questions:

Does my music promote healthy relationships? We should consider—in community, if possible—the message behind our music’s lyrics and the intent of the chords. Does my music encourage me to interact with the opposite sex in a dignified, redemptive manner? Does it promote respect for those in authority and those of the older generation? (That doesn’t mean we kowtow to them, just that we respect them.) Does it create a thirst for God and a reverence for His creation?

Does my music encourage creativity? After Thomas Edison invented the phonograph in 1877, even the relatively poor could access elite musicians through recordings. Before that, it was only the people who could afford concerts. To compound matters, all musicians who were not virtuosos—that is, the vast majority—suddenly had a smaller audience and a far less promising career. Without trying to, the phonograph increased the vicarious intake of music even as it decreased the making of music.

I hold nothing against Thomas Edison, and I hope he rests in peace. Recorded music is here to stay. Yet somehow our music must be more than a surrogate experience. Sing along, and engage with the lyrics. Choose music that stimulates the brain. Develop an appreciation for other genres, always with the intent of playing or singing the music later, for and with real people. Viewing pornography nullifies the original intent of sex, which is to give expression to the sacred communion of an embodied, monogamous relationship. Passive interaction with music is not as devastatating as pornography, but could it nonetheless have a similar effect?

Does my music promote escaping reality?  I am not saying that listening to music cannot be viewed as a diversion. In fact, it can be one of our best diversions—as long as we do not come away feeling depressed, lustful, isolated, nihilistic, xenophobic, or any other crippling emotion. We can learn to appreciate a wide range of genres, but all music must build up rather than tear down. All music must create wonder, empathy, and keener sensibilities. Interestingly, it is not only raunchy, pagan lyrics that deaden our souls; church music can do the same if it is saccharine or escapist.

Fix your thoughts on what is true, and honorable, and right, and pure, and lovely, and admirable . . . excellent and worthy of praise,” says Philippians 4:8. Surely it is not too great an abuse of this passage to adapt these criteria for our music choices. Surely our souls would thank us for doing so.

And, since music is never a private act, the souls of those around us would surely do the same.


Gideon Yutzy Gideon Yutzy believes Christians should live as Gerard Manley Hopkins put it: “counter, original, spare, strange.” He is addicted to the thrill of encountering new people, new ideas, new skills, new words, and new levels of personal growth. Gideon lives with his wife Esther and their three daughters, Olivia, Charlotte, and Honor, in an Anabaptist community in Ireland.

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