Can instrumental music be 'good' or 'evil'?

April 15, 2009 at 09:46 PM ·

The discussion on another thread regarding Bach's music opens another subject area. Bach certainly autographed a large number of his works with a reference to God, but I find it odd that music which has no text (as in the sonatas/partitas discussed on another thread) can be identified as religious in nature simply because it was written by Bach. Bach certainly wrote works that were not written for the church (his gig though was as a church musician). But can we identify his instrumental works that were religious or non-religious simply by hearing their melody or harmony--or can we hear his intent because of voice leading? That interpretation can certainly leave the door open for many unintended consequences--some of which people (and some churches) are grappling with on a weekly basis. If we allow that some instrumental music can be identified as religious (or referencing God), then we also have instrumental music that is non-religious or pagan. Taking that thought process further, we then have music that must have other intrinsic qualities also, such as instrumental music that is inherently good or evil. Hummmm... slippery slope indeed.

Replies (33)

April 15, 2009 at 10:13 PM ·

music is music.  there is no christian music.  no secular music.  there are christian lyrics and secular lyrics.  but also consider that if God created everyone in his image with the capacity to also create, then is everything not also spiritual?


just my 2 cents,

Ross Christopher

April 16, 2009 at 12:54 AM ·

I know it sounds really beginner, but when I listen to music, I imagine what I want and don't even bother to imagine if it is in relation with "religion" or not.  If it makes me think of something divine, it is because it is very beautiful and no more!  The contrary is true also for me! :)  But I know Bach did a lot of officially named "church music"


April 16, 2009 at 02:12 AM ·

This is a really fun question! You have to think about the context in which the music was written. I cannot say I'm much of an expert because it's been awhile since I read that section in Grout. However, one interesting factoid: The "C" meaning 4/4 time doesn't stand for common time; it's an incomplete circle. Composers used to use a full circle for 3/4 or "Perfect" time. It was thought that the number three was sacred (Father, Son, Holy Spirit) and he will occasionally evoke this.

April 16, 2009 at 02:44 AM ·

I think one can *play* music for good or evil purposes.

For example, I will be supervising an hour-long after school detention next month, and I believe that I will find a minute-long snippet of music, say something insipid and irritating from the likes of some common shallow pop "artist" and loop it incessantly for the entire hour.

April 16, 2009 at 03:50 AM ·


April 16, 2009 at 03:51 AM ·

When I was in high school, some kids got detentions for throwing a protest. So, the teacher that had to supervise detention that day brought his old protest music on vinyl and played through the entire detention as punishment.

April 16, 2009 at 05:24 AM ·

In my late teens I was a reborn christian (nobody is perfect ;-). I played electric guitar in my church band, it was in the 70s. Then they told me not to play Santana tunes, because Santana was then a dedicated follower of some obscure guru. They argued that his music was evil. I continued to play Santana songs (to great sucess) and explained that through my christian mind, soul and fingers this evil heathen music gets transformed into sacred music, inspired by the holy spirit. This experience was one reason for me to gradually become unable to take religion for serious.

Btw, a lot of the most beautiful baroque music uses religious themes and inspiration. The music is still alive and fresh, but the spiritual background is outdated. (I prefer instrumental music, partly because many of the words used in baroque oratorios kind of offend me.) It is significant that this music makes no difference between glorifying a secular or a ("the" ;-) divine lord, it's only a matter of who payed for the composer's job. So it is obvious that the music itself contains no spirituality in whatever sense, even if there may be some elements interpreted as symbols.


@Sam: The difference between religion and music: music is real (and I haven't heard of anyone doubting this).

April 16, 2009 at 12:59 PM ·



I shall be worshiping J.S. Bach momentarily

April 16, 2009 at 01:14 PM ·

Instrumental music can sound like it has religious (or pagan, or folk, or martial) themes but that doesn't make it inherently "good" or "bad."   Music is not about ethical or moral values or personal improvement.  It's art.  Art is artifice, an artificial creation which has psychological resonance with the listener but leaves the listener about as good (or bad) as before the listening experience.

April 16, 2009 at 01:58 PM ·

We could discuss the relative beauty of music: of course there is a level of subjectivity here, but we would probably be able to agree on the extremes of beauty and ugliness.

Now, because people seem to want to equate beauty with virtue, or "good", we also seem to want to equate ugly with evil. If we held to this way of thinking, then we would say this music, being beautiful, is good, and vice versa.

Is there any truth in these equivalences? I really don't think so. Indeed, sometimes evil can lurk hidden by extreme beauty. Still, there is a social conditioning that leads us to think good = beautiful, ugly = wicked.

And so, I would imagine some people would think there is an inherent morality to music. Certainly Plato thought so, and so did the philosophers of Ancient China. It is not an uncommon view.



April 16, 2009 at 08:45 PM ·

 But Plato lived in a candle-lit cave, and the ancient Chinese philosophers thought women with tiny shrunken feet were hot.

April 16, 2009 at 10:13 PM ·

Interesting discussion and one that I've run into several times as a Christian violinist.  While definitely many composers used symbolism in music, I think the bigger questions is "What does the music itself communicate?" 

For example--we would all agree that music does communicate emotion, evoke images, etc.  We would not all agree what specific emotions or images a certain piece of music might evoke!  However, especially among certain ages or cultures there would probably be a similarity of interpretation.

The Bach discussion probably deals more with the symbolism side, though I haven't studied that in a while.  The interpretation side is the one I tend to encounter more and the one most of us seem to be talking about--a good question might be, what does this music communicate?  to me, as well as to my audience (which may be slightly different things)?  Once I have an idea what it communicates, can I call that objectively good or bad, or can I determine whether it's appropriate or inappropriate for my purpose.

I have a hard time making an "objective" call at least for most music (i.e. this piece always expresses something good or bad) because context and interpretations can be so variable. But the appropriateness criteria is used all the time in stores, filmscores, etc. because music does communicate; that's its premise!  Now, whether a certain kind of music is appropriate to honor the God you serve--that depends on what your God (or no God) is like.  And that's a whole different discussion. 

April 17, 2009 at 02:54 AM ·

Can written musical notes on a page, without text, have moral qualities? Probably not. But music is a communicative, performative art. In a particular context, a performance of a piece could be said to be "good" or "evil."

April 17, 2009 at 03:13 AM ·

Gene Wie---  I have the perfect piece of insipid music for you to play for your after school detention.  Its called "Shanty Town" by an artist called Mr. Scruff.  Its on his album titled "Keeping It Unreal".  Its a .99 cent download on iTunes.  Listen to a little bit and you'll agree that it would be great for what you need it for.


April 17, 2009 at 04:42 AM ·

As I (former) High School teacher I would think that the detention kids should have their time filled with scrubbing desks and cleaning walls with really great music playing. Not some crap that they hear all the time but--wonderful inspirational music--maybe even some of the best string students could volunteer to play so that the detentionees will:

1) Equate work with great art and beautiful melodies.

2) Vow never to get detention again so that they can go back to their own "music"     awk!! 

Did I say former high school teacher?

April 17, 2009 at 05:05 AM ·

Given a little more thought to the idea of "good" and "evil" I think that some music could be designed to give into the dark side of a person. Like the tattoo that you get--and hide somewhere. Could a composer or artist  decide that  Ok, the church is paying for all this music or i am painting all these wealthy merchants in this fresco for the church wall and now i want to throw in something really evil--because I can.

Relating to the dark side of one's nature could produce an "evil" sound. We know that some artists deliberately do not give all their work a pretty or idealized look. Do we, because it was composed by such and such or painted by this or that person--we tend to classify it in a certain way. Maybe by the standards of the majority of their work (?) What shapes our feelings about hearing a piece of music? Is it built on prior knowlege or feelings about similar pieces of music? Where were we when we heard it first?  Did it touch most of us in the same way? Does our "clan" ultimately decide? Another thought. Is 'evil" music good because it is like a roller coaster or a horror movie? Something to jolt you out of your confort zone.

April 17, 2009 at 06:34 AM ·

I would like to address the "good" aspect:.

When I heard Adagio for Strings for the fist time it was a spiritual experience (not just  an emotional experience).  In Christian terminology the Holy Spirit ministered to my spirit through the music.  I have found that God loves me and desires to reveal Himself and His love to me in many ways.  I just wish I paid more attention sometimes.   

Perhaps I'll chime in on the "evil" idea later.  For now,  I'll let God be the judge.  How's that for a cop-out.

April 17, 2009 at 11:13 AM ·

I once believed that if music came with a certain label, it was evil, but if it had another label, it was good.  Then I came around to the understanding that God himself did not put those labels there.  So, rather than follow the man-made designations, I thought about what it was that gave certain music the label it got. 

"Man looks at outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart."  Two different people will listen to the same piece or the same song, and one will feel hatred and rage and the other may feel lively and positive.  Sometimes I go to the gym and someone has the radio station on some heavy metal.  The lyrics are derogatory and obscene, and the gritty music is specifically designed to sound tough and dark.  People who listen to this tend to drive large trucks with flames on the side and testicles hanging from the hitch.  Is it evil?  Maybe to some.  Mostly when I hear it, I just laugh, and I laugh at the people who have to make themselves so tough looking because they are insecure about something.  Then I go home and wash the detestable sound out of my ears, and I ask forgiveness for being judgemental of people that I don't understand or love.

Spend less time thinking about whether music is evil or good, and more time looking inward, and focusing on actions.  See what the music makes of you.  See what you make of your music.

That being said, Bach still brings me closest to God.  When I took a walk on Easter, snow fell gently in large puffy flakes from the blue sky, spurring thoughts of manna, of forgiveness, of sins being washed white as snow.  This is how Bach affects me when I play it. 

April 17, 2009 at 01:29 PM ·

a piece of art by hitler is hitting the auction block.  i wonder how people would have reacted if hitler composed a piece of music?

April 17, 2009 at 05:18 PM ·

Hitler did paint, and fancied himself as an artist, and there are paintings of his that survive. In fact, I heard on the news that a couple of his 1914 landscapes are being actioned off (If I heard correctly, starting at around $5,000). I've seen reproductions of some of his paintings in books. His paintings are neither good nor evil; they're just lousy. He did like Wagner (and Wagner was a rabid anti-Semite). Does that mean Wagner's music is evil? Maybe why so much of the discussion of Bach as the prime example of "good" or religious music is obviously because that's what inspired him and the church is what he wrote for. That religious "style" (including classic 4-part hymn harmonies and counterpoint) is certainly infused in his more purely instrumental writing. But I think that just as "beauty is in the eye of the beholder," one can make the case that "good and evil are in the ear of the listener." No?

April 17, 2009 at 06:01 PM ·

I had no clue I was one post away from fulfilling Godwin's Law.

April 17, 2009 at 07:58 PM ·

 Had Hitler gotten into art school in Vienna as he had wanted, the world would be a much different place. The question of Wagner is not simple--some of his music was actually banned by the Third Reich as being too modernistic and subversive. Had Wagner not been ignored by Meyerbeer and other Jewish opera composers in Paris, he may not have been an anti-Semite.

At first I didn't think music could be good or evil. I have since changed my mind. Here now I present a list of music which is indeed "evil":

1. Anything with saxophones.

2. Anything featuring John Tesh or Yanni.

3. That heavy-metal music where they scream. Actually, that's not evil. Just a bore.

4. Anything by George Winston. I used to like him in college, like everyone else. Now I see that he is evil. And just makes up stuff as he goes along. So there's that too.

5. Pirates of the Caribbean. The music is evil. And Johny Depp: What kind of pirate is that anyway? A drunk maybe-gay-maybe-not pirate? Make up your mind.

April 17, 2009 at 11:02 PM ·

I like 'evil' music, but only the good kind.

I also like 'good' music, but again only the good kind.

Paradox is where it's at. Things perceived by some as both 'good' and 'evil' have at times spawned exactly the opposite. I do not judge.

I would never hang testicles on the back of any vehicle and I love Bach.

April 18, 2009 at 05:34 AM ·

I guess it comes down to this: music as an object cannot convincingly be shown to be evil, but the act of musicking can.

April 21, 2009 at 03:12 AM ·

This is indeed, an interesting and subjective subject. That said, I haven't read every word so far, and hope I won't be repeating much. I think that this goes to the larger question and long-standing debate about program music. That is, can purely instrumental music convey a specific story or scene, etc.? And do we get, if we are not told, what the composer had in mind, and if not, are we missing much? Various examples come to mind...

As far as some music being inherently religious or not, as I recall, in the Medieval and Renaissance periods some of the same tunes were used for both secular - indeed sometimes with profane lyrics - and religious music. For me personally, the middle, majore section of the Bach Chaconne speaks powefully of religious contemplation and exhultation. However, in the Schubert "Ave Maria", if I didn't know the words, and had heard it for the first time w.o. the title announced, I might just as well guessed that it might be called "Romance". I think that Vivaldi did himself a disservice by composing sonnets to go with his "Four Seasons". By being so specific - e.g. referring to one of the passages in "Winter" as depicting chattering teeth - his music becomes less than all it can be, if we think too much about it. I think composers are more successful at conveying basic feelings and moods than a blow-by-blow description. For example, I do find the storm scenes in Rossini's "William Tell" overture, and Beethoven's 6th symphony pretty convincing. But I think that Verdi completely missed the mark in "Nabuco" in the "Va Pensiero"  chorus. It's supposed to depict the sad longing of the exiled Jewish people on the shores of Babylon to return to their homeland. Even knowing what it's supposed to depict, that music always sounds to me more like a family going on a pleasant Sunday afternoon stroll in a nice park. And what about our (in)famous concertmaster solos in "Scheherezade" and "Ein Heldenleiben" - do/must they really depict an almost doomed story teller and a seductress respsectively? Then there is the frankly orgasmic music in Wagner's "Tristan und Isolde". Yep, that one kind of works for me!

So what are we left with? I frankly don't know!

As to wheter music can be inherently evil or meant by the composer to depict evil, an example of the latter comes to mind in Liszt's "Faust Symphony". Mephostophles is meant to be depicted there at some points. But if we didn't know in advance would we get it? I think we might get a feeling of unrest and agitation. But I am more convinced by the ending representing a kind of salvation...

Can music, itself ever be evil, with or w.o. the composers intentions? I'll end by going off on a very un-pc limb and say very personally, yes. I like a lot of non-classical and non-Western music. There's lots of music that I don't like. Most of the music that I don't care for I would nevertheless not consider evil. But when I hear the incessant mechanical drumbeats of blaring modern disco or 'gansta rap' even w.o. hearing the offensive lyrics - if anything bids fair to desereve that classification for me, it's that. Different music scratches different itches. I wouldn't want the itch that such stuff scratches.

April 20, 2009 at 08:01 PM ·

Raphael, do you think that to you, rap music has become "guilty by association"? 

April 20, 2009 at 08:47 PM ·

It's the inherent vibe that I get from the agressive, jarring sounds themselves - again, with or w.o words. I wouldnt like it any more or less if it came from a far off galaxy with unknown associations.

Come to think of it, a lot of atonal music strikes me as not evil, but bespeaking a certain kind of modernistic angst and alienation which certainly has its place but again, scractches an itch that thankfully, I rarely have.

And now, as I mentioned on a couple of other threads, I need to take a break for a while. Speaking of far-off galaxies, I hear my starship calling. RK go home...

April 20, 2009 at 09:17 PM ·

Ahh, Rap......yes.....

I used to think rap was evil. Then I thought it was beyond evil. Now I know it's so far beyond evil that its perfectly ok. Rap's fatal flaw is that, lacking any compelling musical elements, it will probably not be around too much longer (in musical time, that is). In terms of rhythmic interest, melody, harmony, and even lyrics, what does rap actually have? Can a musical style survive on intimidation and tacky jewelry alone? Come on--even reggae is more interesting.

April 25, 2009 at 03:31 AM ·

Quick comment directed at Raphael Klayman: I find the Va Pensiero chorus to be filled with immense longing and nostalgia. Isn't it wonderful how subjective music can be? : - P

April 26, 2009 at 08:43 PM ·

Disclaimer: I am a Christian. I know a lot of people regard us Christians as "simple-minded" people, to put it nicely. Sadly, this is justified to an extent because of the many confused Christians out there. However, even the Bible says that "Truth shall make you free."

I think whether music is evil or good depends in part on the composer's motivations for writing a particular piece. However, the interpretation of any composer's intentions is often regarded as a fallacy. How could we really know what a composer was thinking of when writing something? Except, of course, the cases when the composer actually tells us that.

Then there is music that is not necessarily evil, but more of a response to evil, music that communicates spiritual suffering. This is just my personal opinion (don't flame me if you disagree) but I would put some of Shostakovich's music in this category. I think it was the 5th symphony that I played in my orchestra last season; that was a piece that for some reason made me feel heavily burdened, almost oppressed. I suppose that this could be subjective and the same music could cause joy in another person, but not in me.

After that, there's also the intentions of the performer, but this is beside the point of the originally posted question.

I guess my conclusion would be that I don't really know :S

April 26, 2009 at 09:12 PM ·

Yes, I agree for Schstakovich music! I feel big revolt in it and suffering...  That the why of some dissonance or weird notes together!  I also feel like if it is a war, a battle but this is so subjective!


April 26, 2009 at 09:14 PM ·

Our perception of good vs evil can be a result of upbringing, culture, and many other things including good old personal taste. It is not exclusive to Christianity or any other religion.

Shostakovich's music might be a little bit more like the human condition experienced by the Jews in the Old Testament (Tora) and less like the modern Evangelical Christianity "Jesus Saved Me And Now I Have Everlasting Life" type of thing. It can be very sad and deep and offers a view into things many of us don't experience in everyday life.

I don't feel that it is evil because of that.

This is not a flame.

April 26, 2009 at 09:59 PM ·

I would never take that as a flame, in fact I agree. All I said was that I think of that music as a response to evil, but not as being evil in itself.

Even that is debatable though.

This discussion has been archived and is no longer accepting responses.

Facebook Twitter YouTube Instagram Email is made possible by...

Shar Music
Shar Music

Pirastro Strings
Pirastro Strings

JR Judd Violins
JR Judd Violins

Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra
Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra

Dimitri Musafia, Master Maker of Violin and Viola Cases
Dimitri Musafia, Master Maker of Violin and Viola Cases Shopping Guide Shopping Guide

Metzler Violin Shop

Southwest Strings

Bobelock Cases

Johnson String Instrument/Carriage House Violins

Jargar Strings

Bay Fine Strings Violin Shop


Los Angeles Violin Shop


String Masters

Nazareth Gevorkian Violins

Laurie's Books

Discover the best of in these collections of editor Laurie Niles' exclusive interviews. Interviews Volume 1 Interviews Volume 1, with introduction by Hilary Hahn Interviews Volume 2 Interviews Volume 2, with introduction by Rachel Barton Pine