MSG: How do you Evaluate Music?

This message was presented on April 28, 2013 as the fourth of four messages on “Music and Worship.”

How do you Evaluate Music?
Ephesians 4:29 

Harold Best, Dean of Music at Wheaton College, wrote, “There is nothing un-Christian or anti-Christian about any kind of music. By the same token, there is no such thing as Christian music. If there were, what would it be?”  This is a very popular position to take among Christians today. Is music completely neutral?   Because Scripture does not define a style of music, can we define what is Christian and what is not? What music is appropriate to worship God?

Let’s begin by noting that music communicates meaning and provide some examples. 

1)      Music communicates meaning Ex. 32:17-19 

a)      Music communicates war Ex. 32:17-19   

Joshua heard some kind of noise and it sounded like “the noise of war.”

And when Joshua heard the noise of the people as they shouted, he said to Moses, “There is a noise of war in the camp. (Ex. 32:17)

He likely went on red alert, putting his hand on his sword ready to defend the people.  Joshua thought it sounded like chaos and the tumult of war, but Moses knew the sound was something else.  

Moses knew, because the Lord told him, that the people had turned to an idol.

18 But he said: “It is not the noise of the shout of victory, Nor the noise of the cry of defeat, But the sound of singing I hear.”
 19 So it was, as soon as he came near the camp, that he saw the calf and the dancing. So Moses’ anger became hot, and he cast the tablets out of his hands and broke them at the foot of the mountain. (Ex. 32:18-19)

It was the sound of war, and used in worship.  Joshua associated it with war. This passage says nothing about the kind or style of music, but just that it suggested strong associations in Joshua’s mind.  Music also suggests a contrast of refreshment. 

b)     Music communicates refreshment 1 Sam. 16:1-23 

King Saul disobeyed God’s command to destroy the Amalekites  and Samuel told him the kingdom would be torn from him.  Samuel anointed David as king of Israel and “…the Spirit of the LORD departed from Saul, and a distressing spirit from the LORD troubled him.” (1Sa 16:14) This is likely a troubling spirit, just as when a person is angry, the devil gets a foothold and can influence your life. Ephesians 4:26-27 uses anger as the mechanism that opens the door for Satan’s influence, but any sin, like rebellion or worry can likely open that door.

Saul was astute enough to understand the power of music and requested someone to help him when he was struggling with life.

17 So Saul said to his servants, “Provide me now a man who can play well, and bring him to me.”
 18 Then one of the servants answered and said, “Look, I have seen a son of Jesse the Bethlehemite, who is skillful in playing, a mighty man of valor, a man of war, prudent in speech, and a handsome person; and the LORD is with him.” ( 1 Sam. 16:17-18)

The music addressed Saul’s emotions and provided a temporary calm.

And so it was, whenever the spirit from God was upon Saul, that David would take a harp and play it with his hand. Then Saul would become refreshed and well, and the distressing spirit would depart from him. (1 Sam. 16:23) 

This passage implies that music calmed Saul with peace and serenity to bring about a change of emotions, however, it did not cause a change of heart or bring about repentance.  Saul reveals no sign of repentance.  In fact, his heart becomes hardened as he reacts to God blessing David’s leadership as a soldier.  There are other ways music communicates.  

c)      Music communicates emotionally  

Some music is used for laments or mourning.  For example, Job writes, “My harp is turned to mourning, And my flute to the voice of those who weep.” (Job 30:31)  There is also particular music that is used for love songs as Isaiah wrote the music for God’s love for Israel, “Now let me sing to my Well-beloved A song of my Beloved regarding His vineyard: My Well-beloved has a vineyard On a very fruitful hill.” (Is. 5:1)

The Bible uses many musical instruments to describe certain emotional states.  For example, the harp is used for mourning and the flute for weeping and wailing.  These are universal emotions that all peoples share. 

Scripture implies that music communicates meaning, but not how it does. How does music communicate as a medium (or mechanism) of communication? 

2)      Music communicates by association like a symbol 

a)      A symbol communicates something 

We use symbols everywhere.  For example, what does a USA flag communicate?

What does a rose communicate? 

Symbols have associations according the culture in which it is used. Scott Aniol wrote, “Music is not emotion; it is merely symbols of emotion.  Music communicates certain moods and emotions to us because we associate its symbols with various emotional states” (Worship in Song, 62) 

There are two ways symbols communicate meaning.  One is by “Conventional Association” and another is by “Natural Association.” 

b)     Conventional Association 

Conventional Association is when a symbol is used by a particular group of people for connecting to another idea.  For example, some symbolism is man-made like “red, white and blue.”  When I asked my three-year-old granddaughter what that stood for, she said, “The American flag!”  I said, “Yes, you are right!”  Then I asked her, “What if we were in Paris, France.  What would “red, white and blue” stand for?”  She said, “The American flag!”  I responded, “Yes, it would mean that to us, but in France, the French flag is red, white and blue and the French people would think of their flag.  Then I asked her one more question, “If we were in Russia, and I said, “What does “red, white and blue” stand for?  She said, “The American flag!”  I answered, “Yes, it would mean that to us, but to the Russian people it would stand for their Russian flag.”  I added, “All three flags are made of red, white and blue, but there are different arrangements of the colors.” 

What about raising your right arm at a straight 45o angle in front of your body.  Is that associated with anything?  Remember the German Nazi salute? 


The salute is associated with terrible times.  In fact, just this Spring, one Greek soccer player has been banned from his country’s national team for life after making a Nazi salute during a game.

What about Rossini’s overture to the opera William Tell?

What picture is often associated with that music? 


How about a picture of the Lone Ranger? 


What does this song remind you of?  Yes, “Glorious Things of Thee are Spoken.”  Shortly after World War II, an American missionary used that song in a church service in England.  Unfortunately, a British man who was visiting the missionary’s church,  stood up and stomped out. Why did he leave so abruptly? There was nothing wrong with the music in itself, because it is a great hymn of faith, but to that British man, he knew it as the German National Anthem and it was clearly associated with wickedness. 

c)      Natural Association 

There are also natural associations that we make.  For example, dark looming clouds are associated with a coming storm,

Or the symbol of a curve in the road is associated with curves in the road,


Or even a frown is associated with sadness,


They are universal symbols that convey a meaning without a word spoken.

There are some kinds of natural associations from the dynamics, tone colors, rhythms and tempos of music to help us feel a certain way.  Natural associations must fit with the context, or that kind or style of music is not used.  For example, Mendelssohn’s wedding march is not played at a football game; it is played in a church.  You will hear different kinds of music  at a tavern and the songs played in an nursery where babies are will be much different.  Again, they are universal around the world, in most cases. 

Consider the kinds of musical scores used for movies.  The scores are written to enhance the moods and emotions with a given scene regardless of the age, demographic, culture or gender of the audience.  For example,





What does this evoke?



 This is the “Star Wars” theme song.  The language used changes from country to country, but the music stays the same.  Or what about,


Sound of music.

So what does this mean?  Music by its nature is a form of communication, Music possesses some natural meanings and also conventional meanings by association.  At the heart of music is communication.  Some times the conventional association corresponds to the natural meaning like Pachelbel’s Canon in D.


The point is music communicates through symbolic associations and such association can be either conventional or natural, depending upon whether or not they correspond to something that occurs naturally in all human experience.

Now, add lyrics to a musical selection, and we have two additional layers of meaning: the obvious content of the text and the poetic “mood.” We must remember that symbolic meaning (in this case, the meaning music conveys), if it is natural, always trumps the text. This is extremely important. For instance, if I were to approach my wife with a frown, furrowed brow, and loud tone of voice (natural symbols of anger) and say to her, “I love you,” my negative tone of voice and body language would certainly overpower the positive meaning of the statement. The medium trumps the words, no matter what the words are. The same is true for music. So we must take Scripture, apply what we know to music. 

3)      Evaluate music by Scripture Eph. 4:29 

a)      There is both edifying and corrupt communication Eph. 4:29

29 Let no corrupt word proceed out of your mouth, but what is good for necessary edification, that it may impart grace to the hearers. (Eph. 4:29)

This is a great verse on communication.  The word “corrupt” means “rotten,” “causing to become foul,” or “putrid.”   Consequently, we should have lyrics that edify, not that corrupt.  Would we even want to have music that has lyrics that promote sexual immorality, impurity sensuality,…etc.?

19 Now the works of the flesh are evident, which are: adultery1, fornication, uncleanness, lewdness,
 20idolatry, sorcery, hatred, contentions, jealousies, outbursts of wrath, selfish ambitions, dissensions, heresies,
 21envy, murders1, drunkenness, revelries, and the like; of which I tell you beforehand, just as I also told you in time past, that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. (Gal. 5:19-21) 

Lyrics that would promote sin are obviously something we wouldn’t want.  In fact, Paul becomes clear that we should be very careful to not let that be named among us.

3 But fornication and all uncleanness or covetousness, let it not even be named among you, as is fitting for saints;
 4neither filthiness, nor foolish talking, nor coarse jesting, which are not fitting, but rather giving of thanks. (Eph. 5:3-4)

God doesn’t want  things like foolish talk and crude joking. It is not even to be named among them. But are the lyrics the only thing we should judge as Christians?  Since music is a medium of communication through emotional metaphors, music can communicate the kinds of emotions that naturally represent sinful deeds.

b)     Bad association can corrupt 1 Cor. 15:33

Scripture is clear that we should avoid bad company.  Paul writes, “Do not be deceived: ‘Evil company corrupts good habits.’“(1 Cor 15:33)  If evil company corrupts, can music not corrupt? If music promotes certain kinds of emotions, is it any different than hanging around with the wrong kinds of friends?

As Christians, we are to avoid any kind of corrupt communication, this would include music that promotes a cacophony of sounds, whether by sinful lyrics or emotions of music associated with sin. Instead a Christian’s communication must be edifying. As Paul writes, “Let no corrupt word proceed out of your mouth, but what is good for necessary edification, that it may impart grace to the hearers.” (Eph. 4:29)  Christians are called to use edifying music. 

Note Paul’s desire to run to the righteous standard of God, rather than be satisfied with what is “not sinful.”  He writes, “All things are lawful for me, but not all things are helpful; all things are lawful for me, but not all things edify.”(1 Cor. 10:23)  Paul makes a distinction between what is “lawful” and what is “edifying.”  He is saying that we shouldn’t be content with what is lawful.  We shouldn’t fill our lives with what is “neutral.”  As Paul says, “…but not all things edify.”  Rather than asking the question, “What’s wrong with it?”  we should really be asking, “What’s right with it?”  What does this music communicate?

Listen to music that expresses noble affections as a way of approving what is good and “good music promotes good morals.”  So how do we make application to music from these principles?

This should cause us to realize there are two kinds of music.  There is one kind that is edifying and one that is corrupt.  This does not mean that music is black and white as we might like it to be.  Where music has liberty, there will be great choices for preference. 

Avoid at all times
Room for preference


This does not mean, as stated, music is black and white, but there is communication, and therefore music, that communicates corruption and some that edifies.  For example, a child wouldn’t eat rotten, smelling food.  They know better by their senses.  But if left to himself, what would a child eat?  He would eat what tastes good, not necessarily what IS good.  If you put a plate of mixed vegetables and a box of Long’s donuts, what would the child eat?  He’d eat the donuts far quicker than the vegetables!  They taste better to me too! The same is true for music.   

c)      Associate with what edifies 1 Cor. 10:23 

The next question is, “Is this song or style fitting for this circumstance? When I was three years old, struggling with God’s plan for my life, trying to figure out who I was going to marry in life and what I was going to do, I couldn’t sleep.  My mom would take me on her lap and sing a lullaby. I still remember her sweet, comforting voice.  I had a tough time going to sleep and her singing helped me to relax.  But how fitting is that lullaby at a basketball game?  A John Philip Sousa March is great for the military, marching or a pep band, but would it be fitting to put my granddaughter to sleep?

So when it comes to sacred music, we have to ask, “What is fitting for this occasion?”  For example, if we were to express joy, like the joy Paul talks about in Philippians 4:4, “Rejoice in the Lord always, again, I say rejoice!”  Would that be done in a flippant, care-free frivolity or would it be done with a majestic, sober, stand-tall praise?  What kind of music captures David dancing before the ark as it was entering Jerusalem?  Or what kind of music would you use for a court jester doing a little ditty?  They certainly wouldn’t be the same.  Why do we say that music is neutral?  Is it because we like certain kinds of music in the same way my taste buds would prefer to eat Long’s donuts rather than asparagus?  What music expresses or communicates what is appropriate for expressing God’s truth?

This requires that we expand the chart.  There is corrupt music that we should avoid at all times in worshipping God.  I would  say music like “Death Metal.”  Under the category of Edifying, there is music that would be “Unfitting” for worshiping God, but may be okay on another occasion. That should be avoided for that occasion of worshiping God.  Under the “Fitting” category, there is great room for preferences. 

Avoid at all times
Room for preferences
Avoid for this occasion


Evaluating musical style carries great importance, because it is what you are using to express biblical truth!  You are using a medium to communicate God’s Word!  We should pay particular attention to the kind of music we use to sing God’s Word.  Let me illustrate.  I treat my Bible carefully. I don’t knowingly put anything upon my Bible.  I won’t put another book on it, or even my notes on it.  I will store notes in my Bible, but not on it.  I don’t want anything to be “above” my Bible in any way.  I also never put my Bible on the floor.  My Bible is holy and precious.  I try to treat it like it is the most valuable thing I have.  I would not give a Bible to a child and let him treat it anyway he wants.  I would give a Bible to a child, even a picture Bible, but I would put parameters on how it is treated and stored so the child would learn to treat God’s word as holy. 

Let me illustrate the importance of music in another way. Let us say you are serving baked chicken.  You are having a picnic at a park and have chicken, potato salad, beans and carrots.  What would you serve it on?  You would likely use a paper plate.  That is fitting for the occasion. That is appropriate. But if you were to have Governor Pence to your home for baked chicken, would it be fitting to use paper plates at the dining table if you had dishes in the cabinet? Regardless of what you think of Governor Pence, and I have a great deal of respect, his position as governor deserves your best.

Music is like the dish for delivering the truth. We consider the music style, because we are concerned about the truth and those who hear the truth.  Therefore, we want to make sure the music is edifying and fitting.  We have to decide what is fitting for those who hear.  Ultimately we must make it fitting for our holy, sovereign and merciful God. What musical style is fitting for a time of corporate worship?

There is one more area that must be considered.  We need to consider conventional and natural associations.  Paul addressed love in 1 Corinthians 8.  Some of the Corinthian believers were bothered about eating meat, because they had come out of a cult, whereby the meat at certain meat markets had been used for worshiping idols.  Some of the excess meat, which wasn’t consumed in the idolatrous worship, was sold to the public and it happened to be good meat. This is what Paul said about that.

4 Therefore concerning the eating of things offered to idols, we know that an idol is nothing in the world, and that there is no other God but one. (1 Cor. 8:4)

For Paul, where the meat came from didn’t matter, because there is nothing to idols, so he wouldn’t make any association to idolatry and the meat. However, because some in Corinth associated the meat with idols, the association reminder would cause them to think, “Maybe there is nothing wrong with the idols,” and they would slip back into thinking about the idols and even worship them. They are what Paul described as the “weaker brother.” 

Yet by the end of the chapter, Paul says, “I’ll not eat meat if it causes my brother to stumble.”  Why  did Paul conclude that?  The meat carried a conventional association to pagan worship and the immoral activities that occurred there.  If Paul ate the meat, that would indicate to a weaker brother that Paul was endorsing the practices of pagan worship.  Paul and most believers knew better, but the weaker brother did not think the way Paul and you do.  The meat is not the problem. The problem is the conventional association.

9 But beware lest somehow this liberty of yours become a stumbling block to those who are weak.
 10 For if anyone sees you who have knowledge eating in an idol’s temple, will not the conscience of him who is weak be emboldened to eat those things offered to idols?
 11 And because of your knowledge shall the weak brother perish, for whom Christ died?
 12 But when you thus sin against the brethren, and wound their weak conscience, you sin against Christ.
 13Therefore, if food makes my brother stumble, I will never again eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble. (1 Cor. 8:9-13)

 The same is true with musical choices. That is what happened when the British chap stomped out of a missionary’s church service over the song, “Glorious things of Thee are spoken.”  If a kind of song is strongly associated with a particular sinful lifestyle then don’t use it.  Especially consider children.  What kind of music are we feeding to children?  If you give them what they like all the time, what happens if you give them healthy, wholesome music?  Will they reject it?  We need to be discerning.

Consider where spiritual maturity enters the picture. Paul, who is spiritually mature makes a clear case that he is willing to deny what he should be willing to enjoy for the sake of the gospel.  Paul notes that he has several rights in 1 Corinthians 9.  He gave up the right to financial support from most churches in 1 Corinthians 9:4.  He gave up the right to marriage in 1 Corinthians 9:5.  And, as a spiritual leader, he was supposed to make his living from leading, teaching and giving the Word to churches and pastors, so he was exempt from manual labor, but he gave up that right in 1 Corinthians 9:6.  He makes no use of any of these rights.  For some reason, receiving money from churches, taking a wife and refraining from manual labor had conventional associations that would have hindered evangelism. He was willing to give up freedoms to win some to Christ for the sake of the gospel.  He said, “…to the weak I became as1 weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some.” (1 Cor.  9:22) 

The principle would apply to musical choices when an otherwise good song or musical style would hinder evangelistic endeavors because of some kind of conventional association.  A mark of spiritual maturity is the choice to give up a legitimate right for the sake of others.  So now the chart looks like this:

Avoid at all times
Negative Association
Positive Association
Avoid for this occasion
Avoid for this occasion
Room for preferences

 Evaluating music is important because truth is important and we are using music to convey God’s truth!  Just like the plate we use to serve a delicious meal is important for the occasion, so music selection is important for the occasion. It is up to us to discern and to determine the meaning, appropriateness, associations of songs and style and then make wise decisions about what music is chosen. This is key: God is more interested in the process of discernment than the style, because it shows we are dependent on Him.

However, someone might say, “I can’t help what I like.” “I eat junk food, but my wife fixes healthy food.  What do I do?”  My taste buds may like a certain kind of food, but I must ask , “What is best for me?”  I, and you, can learn to eat what is healthy. 

We like what we know.  We can learn something new and that becomes what we know.  If what we know is healthy, then we will change what we are eating and begin to eat more healthily. We can change what we like, by changing what we know.  Spend time with what is wholesome and your tastes can change.  In fact, we are obligated to love what God loves,

8 Finally, brethren, whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy– meditate on these things.
 9 The things which you learned and received and heard and saw in me, these do, and the God of peace will be with you. (Phil. 4:8-9)

Here’s the conclusion: 

Evaluate your music by Scripture to what is fitting for the King!


Message Based Discussion Questions

1)      What kinds of music do you like?

Digging Deeper:

2)      According to Ephesians 5:18-20, how is the Christian to be filled?  __________________  What will be the result if a Christian is filled with the Holy Spirit?  What will that look like in Church?

3)      What idea is found in both Eph. 5:20 and Rom. 1:21? ________________________  What is the contrast between the two verses?  What will be true of the believer who is filled with the Holy Spirit compared to the unbeliever who is not filled?  So, if a believer is not giving thanks, what does that say about his life?

4)      As a reference to Satan, what does Ezek. 28:12-15 say Satan was good at (cf. 28:13c)? ______________________________  How do you suppose this might have caused his fall?

Applying the message to life:

5)      If there is room for preference, how do I discern what I should not listen to in life?

6)      What are several examples of conventional associations in regard to music?  When you hear a particular song, what do you think of without hearing the lyrics?

7)      If music is like a plate that serves food, why should the plate fit the occasion?


*I am indebted to Scott Aniol for his excellent instruction a the Chafer Theological Seminary Pastor’s Conference March 4-6, 2013 in Houston, Texas at the West Houston Bible Church.  Much of the thinking and content was derived from Scott’s presentation at that conference.  His book, “Worship in Song” is an excellent resource for thinking through the issues.  I’ll have a book review on his book shortly.


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