By Emily Stimpson
Music matters. Whether it’s an advertising jingle, a song on the car stereo or a hymn sung on a Sunday morning, what we listen to affects us.
That tune on the radio can make us happy, or it can make us sad. It can make us hopeful, or it can feed despair. And like the music young David played for Saul, it can either quiet our troubled spirits or move us to fear, anger and even hate.
According to Bob Rice, a Catholic performing artist and professor of catechetics at Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio, music holds such power over us because “we were made for music.”
“When we look at pictures of heaven,” Rice explained, “everyone is singing. That’s how the angels and saints worship God. God created music. It comes from him.”
Music also derives its power, said Louisiana blogger (aliveandyoung.blogspot.com) and Catholic high school theology teacher Paul Catalanotto, from its ability to “bypass our reason and go right to our imaginations.”
“Music moves our passions, those things within us that move us to action — love, anger, fear,” he said. “And it moves us, without us always realizing we’ve been moved.”
Which is what makes a 2008 study by University of Pittsburgh researchers all the more troubling.
According to the study, which was published in the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, more than a third of the top 279 Billboard hits from 2005 contained explicit references to drugs and alcohol, while about half of those references, in turn, were connected in some way to refer-ences to sex. Another 29 percent were connected to violence.
“Music is prayer,” said Rice. “Either it’s a prayer to God, or it’s a prayer to something else. We might not think of listening to music as praying, but when a song is running through our minds, over and over again, we’re meditating on it. It’s making connections with different thoughts and emotions. It’s either attracting us to God — to truth, beauty and goodness — or it’s distracting us from him.”
Music’s power to connect us with God was one of the reasons the ancient Israelites went through their day murmuring the Psalms, the songs of David.
“They kept the Word of God always on their lips, which helped keep it in their hearts,” said Rice. “Today, we keep a lot of things besides the Psalms on our lips, which means we’re keeping a lot of other things in our hearts as well.”
So, does that mean Christians should only be listening to Masses by Mozart and hymns by Father Frederick William Faber, forgoing whatever is topping the Billboard charts?
Not necessarily, said popular Catholic recording artist and father of eight Chris Padgett.
No one type of music, in and of itself, is intrinsically evil,” said Padgett. “The effect music has depends on the individual presenting it, the lyrical content behind it and the spiritual momentum with which they’re presenting it.”
“Even when a song is secular,” he said,“or when the artist himself is less than virtuous, the song itself can still say something true. Mozart and Bach led less than exemplary lives, but that didn’t prevent them from creating music that was authentically beautiful. The same can be said of some contemporary recording artists today.”
Rather than categorically denouncing secular music, Catalanotto advises Catholics to simply be more reflective about what they listen to: “First, ask yourself, ‘What passions are being moved by this song? Am I being moved toward God or away from God?’ Second, evaluate the lyrics. What’s the message being presented? Any music that degrades the human person or reduces a person to an object should probably be off-limits.”
When it comes to determining what types of music to which your children should listen, Rice also advises against placing any categorical bans on musical genres, at least when it comes to the teenage years.
“Banning songs with explicit lyrics, especially when there are young children in the house, is one thing,” he said. “Banning whole genres of music is another. A teenager’s identity is tightly bound up with the music they listen to and the culture that music embodies. When you reject someone’s music, they feel like you’re rejecting them. They feel personally insulted, and you lose the opportunity for dialogue.”
Rather than vanquish rap, country or rock from teen-agers’ iPods, Padgett instead advises walking teens through the same process Catalanotto recommended for adults.
“Ask for copies of the stuff they’re listening to, and listen to it,” he said. “Then print out the lyrics and go over them together. Point out what’s good, and challenge them about what’s bad. Help them make wise choices.
“The easy thing to do is just say ‘no’ to rock music. But when you do that, you’re missing the point. Why do they want to listen to that music? Why does every kid they know like that song? If you just ban the music, you never get to address the deeper issues.”
Whether they’re reflecting on their own listening habits or their children’s, Rice advises Catholics to keep in mind the sentiments expressed by Pope Paul VI in his apostolic exhortation on evangelization in the modern world (Evangelii Nuntiandi , 1975): the rift between the Gospel and the culture is “the great drama of our time,” and that Catholics’ task is to heal the rift by entering into the culture, finding the seeds of good in it and nurturing those seeds.
“Music is one of the most direct expressions of culture, and we can almost always find something good in our culture’s music, even if it’s only a sense of longing or a desire for hope,” Rice concluded. “Listening to our culture’s music can help us see the good that is there.”
Emily Stimpson is an OSV contributing editor.
In 2008, researchers from the University of Pittsburgh set out to answer that question, analyzing Billboard magazine’s top 279 most popular songs of 2005 to determine what percentage of songs referenced tobacco, alcohol and drug use. Their conclusions showed that substance abuse was found in:
1 in 3 songs overall (33%)
4 in 5 rap songs (77%)
1 in 5 R&B songs (20%)
1 in 7 rock songs (14%)
1 in 10 pop songs (10%)
Researchers also found that:
Young people between the ages of 15 and 18 listen to approximately 2.4 hours of music a day, which translates to them hearing 84 references to explicit substance use daily.
In the 93 songs referencing substance use, the behavior was most often motivated by peer/social pressure (48%) or sex (30%).
Use of the substance was associated with partying (54%), sex (46%), violence (29%) and humor (24%).
68% of the songs with substance use references portrayed more positive than negative consequences to the behavior.
“Currently, the world, especially in the United States, seems very concerned with what goes into the body, the food we eat, the nutritional value of our dinner. ... Yet not many people stop to consider what they put into their mind. If I eat doughnuts all day long the outcome will be obvious. What if you fill your mind with all sorts of negativity? What if you fill your mind with all sorts of sexual references? What if you fill your mind with all sorts of drug references or ideas about suicide? ... Ultimately, music boils down to communication. The musician is trying to communicate something to you. Sometimes it is good. Other times it is not so good.”
— High school theology teacher Paul Catalanotto giving a lecture to his student about the effects of music
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