How Music Affects Its Listeners

During our recent spring break vacation at the beach, my husband and I encountered several people walking along the sidewalks, beach, and paths carrying speakers playing loud music, most often loud and obscene rap music. The lyrics of these songs told us how Satan was trying to influence the thoughts and minds of those who were listening to them. Satan was working through these explicit lyrics to draw people away from Christ. 

Music and Character

While the lyrics told us something of how their listeners were being influenced, the very nature of the music itself also made us wonder about the people listening to those songs. It made us wonder about the type of person who would choose to listen to such music (and wanted to be heard listening to it in a very public setting), and made us fearful for that person’s soul, which was being constantly exposed to aggressive music with explicit lyrics.

The idea that the music affects the listeners suggests an important question: can the music we listen to shape our proclivities and inspire our actions? Can the music we listen to influence our souls? I have already written about how the music we listen to becomes the music we sing and thus the lyrics become the words we confess. But can the actual music itself also influence us?

Music and Text: Together and Apart

In songs of all varieties, from hymns to rap, text and melody work in tandem to effectively deliver the message of the song. For example, a song with lyrics about peace will typically feature a soothing and calm melody so that both text and music convey the sense of peace to the listener. Someone who hears a song like this might even be able to predict the message of the song simply from hearing the music without the text.

When we work out, we generally turn on a playlist of high-energy music. Even without considering the lyrics to the songs, the music “pumps us up” and inspires us to physically work out at a high and energetic pace. When we host an evening dinner party, we play a jazzy playlist—songs with or without lyrics. Our guests most likely aren’t listening closely to any exact lyrics, but the music itself sets the mood of the party. Likewise, the music we listen to on a regular basis both indicates our personality and influences our personality, perhaps even affecting the formation of our soul.

In Lutheran churches, we utilize the hymnal and the historic liturgy not only because the text offers reverent praise to the Trinity, or details for a biblical story or theme, but also because the music itself is reverent and timeless, appropriate for a sacred setting. Choosing to come to church and therefore hearing and participating in this music on a weekly basis not only indicates where your heart and mind dwell but also continues to form your soul as the Holy Spirit works through God’s Word coupled with reverent music.

Music Affects Us, Apart from Lyrics 

What if we mostly listen to music with clean lyrics and wholesome themes? Could the actual music itself still affect us in negative ways? Even if the lyrics are clean, can constant exposure to aggressive music make us more aggressive? I am no social scientist who has systematically studied such a question; however, we know that music affects our brains. Consider the field of music therapy, which depends on the fact that music affects us both psychologically and physically.

My above examples of a workout playlist and dinner party music to set the mood are two relatively common examples that show how we know that music affects us and that we use such knowledge to our advantage. It behooves us to consider the music that we are listening to: Are we listening to not only good lyrics but also to good music? What does “good music” in the sense of music that inspires us to good character and admirable actions sound like? Could it be different for different people?

Music as a Vehicle for the Gospel 

We should constantly evaluate the art and culture we put in our lives. Are the books we are reading and the images we are seeing and the songs we are hearing appropriate to the life of a Christian? After all, if music has the power to affect the souls of the people listening to it, then it can be a powerful force for sharing the Gospel of Christ. If the music we listen to and the music others hear us listening to is good and uplifting, it can be a powerful evangelization tool.

Where the world pushes aggressive music as a constant soundtrack, Christians have opportunities to offer an alternative. Our music, while not always peaceful, can draw others to the One who grants everlasting peace. Our music could be a starting point that helps others to see something that is contrary to the world, something they may have never experienced before.

As we enter Holy Week, we know we will experience reverent music that inspires us to consider and meditate upon the Passion of our Lord. Thanks be to God for His gift of music that continues to bring us the message of salvation and of sins forgiven.

Want to learn more about Martin Luther’s perspective on music in the church and society? Order Luther on Music: Paradigms in Praise by clicking the button below.

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Written by

Marie Greenway

Marie Greenway has worked and volunteered as a church musician since childhood. She graduated from Hillsdale College with a degree in music and was formerly the music teacher at Immanuel Lutheran School in Alexandria, Virginia. Now, she has shifted from spending the day teaching other people’s children to spending the days and nights raising her own. Marie continues to stay involved at school by teaching piano lessons and coordinating the after-school music lesson program. When she is not teaching lessons, answering emails, or changing diapers, Marie loves to go on walks, read books, sight-read music, hang out with her husband, and risk all dignity earning smiles from her daughter.

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