In my high school days, I used to listen to a wide range of rock music — bands like The Beatles, The Police, The Doors, U2, Rush, Van Halen, Yes, Genesis, King Crimson, Gentle Giant, ELP, Steely Dan — and rap was part of the mix, too.
At a certain point, thanks to a charismatic prayer group at church, I started taking my Catholic faith more seriously. For the first time, I was choosing to attend Mass on weekdays and reading the Bible on my own. I began to pay attention to the lyrics of the music I was listening to and noticed how vulgar and stupid they often were. It was not difficult to see that the musicians, too, at closer look, were anything but models of virtue .
At about the same time, thanks to a required music appreciation class in which the teacher regaled us with Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons,” Mozart’s “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik,” and other renowned classics , I was growing more aware of how the music of the great composers spoke to many levels of my being. It was not just stirring up the lower passions, making the toes tap or the hips gyrate, but appealing to the intellect and the heart as well. I don’t know if I could have expressed it well back then; I just knew that the music was a whole lot more interesting, complex, and beautiful in its melodies, harmonies, and rhythms.
At a certain point, it occurred to me that I no longer wanted to give the rock and pop “artists” my time, my money, or, most importantly, access to my soul, and that (fortunately!) there was a wider, deeper musical world out there. I decided to quit listening to the pop and rock stuff. In fact, at a certain point I took all of my cassettes — we used cassettes back then — and threw them in the garbage can. I’ve never regretted that decision, or my turn to more serious and more artistically worthy music. Here I will attempt to explain why.
Seeking and striving for greatness
“Why should it make a difference whether we listen to geniuses like Bach and Beethoven or whatever three-minute pop song happens to be on the radio? I don’t have time for these long, complicated pieces, and I need to get pumped up for my gym workout.”
We are the beneficiaries over 1,000 years of glorious Western music, a heritage that has no parallel in any other human civilization or culture. This is our heritage — something that has been passed down to us. Each one of us, as a rational animal, as a citizen of the West, and as a Christian, should take hold of it and take advantage of it. As men, as believers, we should be striving for excellence — intellectual, cultural, moral, spiritual.
Our life is not bifurcated into two hermetically sealed compartments — namely, inside the church and outside the church. It is one single life. St. John Chrysostom preached to his flock: “Some people make their houses a theater; you should make your home a church.” He did not mean that we should always wear our Sunday best and listen only to plainchant or Palestrina, but rather that we should conscientiously pursue in our homes what is good, gracious, beautiful, and life-giving, as the Apostle instructs us to do:
Brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. (Phil 4:8)
This apostolic teaching does not mean we must do what is objectively best all the time, whether in cultural pursuits or in life in general — assuming we could even know with certainty what is objectively best. That would hardly be possible for us mortals . Rather, St. Paul is urging us to aspire to what is better, more nourishing, more sanctifying, more proper for rational beings made in God’s image and likeness. On judgment day, the Lord will ask us to give an account of how we used our time, our mental energy, our passions, our divine capacity for beauty and wonder, nobility, and courtesy. We will have to explain why, when we learned or could have learned that there was a greater beauty and wonder, nobility and courtesy, we did not in some way strive to make it part of our lives. The same Apostle exhorts us:
I appeal to you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. (Rom 12:1–2)
We do, therefore, have an obligation not to be conformed to the secular world and its values, when these are opposed to what is sacred and supernatural. We have a duty to seek interior transformation by putting on the mind of Christ. We are called to offer our bodies as a holy sacrifice by which the flesh is subordinated to the spirit, the lower powers to the higher powers, and our intellect and will to God. This is how we will fulfill Our Lord’s injunction: “Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt 5:48).
Music shapes our souls for better or for worse
“But isn’t the music we listen to a matter of indifference? Surely, it’s just superficial entertainment.”
Such may be a common point of view in the modern democratic Western world, but it is a minority opinion in the history of human thought — and I’m not quite sure that anyone really believes it when push comes to shove . That music has a profound effect on the formation and development of our human potentialities and moral character is the teaching of Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Pieper, Ratzinger, and Scruton, among other heavyweights — and surely, when thinkers opposed on so much else agree on this major point, their agreement should give us pause. If what these thinkers hold is true, music cannot but affect our lives as Christians and our eternal destiny.
According to the two greatest philosophers of antiquity, Plato and Aristotle, whenever we listen to music, we are allowing it to come inside and make its home in our souls. We are saying: Shape me; make me like yourself. We wouldn’t sleep with just anyone, or entrust our education to any teacher — yet we will allow sordid characters and their cheap goods to enter the doors and windows of our body and live inside our minds and hearts! Plato in particular argues that what we really believe, what we are, is most of all revealed by that in which we take pleasure. If our tastes in music or movies are the same as those of modern American atheistic hedonists, what does that say about the strength of our faith or the vitality of our intellectual life?
That we are supposed to care very much about the reformation of our interior life, especially by turning away from corrupt passions, is impressed on us by St. Peter:
His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, that through these you may escape from the corruption that is in the world because of passion, and become partakers of the divine nature. (2 Peter 1:3-4)
What’s wrong with today’s “popular music”
“So far, so good. But all of the above is too general — painting with a broad brush. Can you be more specific about what’s wrong with the kind of music you threw away in high school, and what, in contrast, is so good about the more artistically refined music?”
Rhythm is the most basic element of music, the most primitive. This is why the music of some primitive cultures consists mostly of drumming. More advanced cultures, presupposing the framework of rhythm, develop beautiful melodies above it. The most advanced, presupposing both rhythm and melody, develop a system of harmony. When you listen to a piece by (e.g.) Palestrina, Bach, Mozart, Tchaikovsky, or Pärt, the rhythm, although discernible, is subordinated to the melody and harmony, which take “center stage.”
Pop, rock, rap, metal, and other such “popular” styles are unhealthy for the soul because they invert this rational hierarchy of rhythm, melody, and harmony. They accentuate the beat, strip the harmonic framework to a bare minimum, and employ repetitious, unlyrical “melodies” (if they can even be called that) in order to stimulate the concupiscible and irascible sense-appetites in a disordered manner. We are dealing here with music deliberately primitive and passionate, simplistic and sensual .
It is one thing for such music to proceed from genuine savages who know no better, but it is quite another for it to proceed from the descendents of a rich folk culture and a resplendent high culture. In the latter case, it is a rejection of their own inheritance, a symbolic statement of repudiation and revolution. We may compare it to the difference between naïve pagans who do not yet know the Gospel and nihilistic neo-pagans who hold it in contempt — so much so that they do not even bother to find out whether or not they understand what they are rejecting.
We can see the simplism and sensualism of many “popular” forms of music if we look at the rhythmic underpinning. All traditional Western musical styles follow the principle of the downbeat, where the first beat in a measure of 3 or 4 beats is the most accentuated, as is quite natural. Syncopation — the practice of accentuating an “off” beat — is used by great composers as “spice,” but pop styles lean on it relentlessly, monotonously, to induce a kind of stupor. Rock music in particular is defined by the continual accentuation of the weak beats (2 and 4) rather than the downbeat and its partner (1 and 3). This accentuation is unnatural: it is the MSG of the music world.
The rarity of triple time (3/4, 6/8) in pop culture is also indicative: it bespeaks a loss of the art of dance. Dances in triple time are notable for their lilting, gentle, noble, or debonair attitude. In the pulsating, gyrating, pumping, aerobic-type exercise that is now called “dancing,” such triple-time dances of the past, which were numerous, widespread, and beautiful, are gone. If ever there was a manifest sign of cultural degeneration, it would have to be the descent from minuet to waltz to swing to disco to rock club to mosh pit. With each step in the descent, we see a lessening of the social and communal dimension of dance, which is supposed to be an imitation of the orderly cosmos and the relations of the sexes within it; with each step, we see a decrease of formal beauty, a lapse of dignity, a loosening of morals, a growing contempt for order, symmetry, coordination of partners.
What can we say, then? Today’s popular music is largely unhealthy for its imbibers, in a way that is not dissimilar to the way in which
- eating junk food or doing drugs is bad for your body;
- playing videogames is bad for your psyche;
- seeking sexual pleasure for its own sake or looking at pornography is bad for your soul.
It can also be bad for you in the way in which reading only comic books when you could be reading great literature is bad, or dressing sloppily or immodestly when you could dress well.
With a lot of music, we are not dealing with something intrinsically evil, such that the mere listening to it constitutes a mortal sin. Rather, we are dealing with something relatively evil: something that indicates and fosters moral imperfection, which, if unresisted, may lead to mortal sin. St. Thomas Aquinas argues that venial sin is bad not only because of the offense in itself, light though it may be, but also because repeated venial sins are a slippery slope to mortal sin.
By listening to rock or pop or rap, one is stunting one’s moral growth, depriving oneself of intellectual perfection, and impeding or clouding one’s spiritual life.
A musical examination of conscience
“But are you saying that popular music always has to be bad? That the only good music there is is that of a cultural elite? Are all of us supposed to become sophisticates?”
No, not at all. I mean, it wouldn’t hurt to develop some aesthetic sophistication; after all, it’s a rational perfection, as argued above. Yet the point is not sophistication for its own sake. The point is to develop an ear for what is beautiful and what is fitting for every occasion, with all the diversity that occasions allow and encourage.
This means that at a square dance, one should have good old-fashioned square dance music. When sitting around a campfire, one should sing the classic folk songs of one’s people or nation (and woe to that people or nation that has no such songs, or never learns them). At a wedding reception, one might showcase waltzes, swings, and country dances . Every normal human occasion has well crafted music that suits it. In ancient cultures, even funerals were graced with special mourning music, a genre that has completely died out among modern Westerners.
Popular music does not have to be bad. The popular music of a healthy age, like the Catholic Middle Ages, is beautiful through and through: to borrow a saying of John Paul II, its makers and listeners are soaring on the wings of faith and reason. Music from the Middle Ages, whether it be the pilgrim songs of the Llibre Vermell de Montserrat or the rollicking ballads of the troubadours, shows us that music can be lusty but not lustful, toe-tapping but not Dionysian, vivacious but not disordered.
This illustrates an important truth: music, to be good, does not have to be “boring” and straight-laced or super-refined and subtle . Medieval music displays immediacy, spontaneity, innocence; its inventive melodies, harmonic ingenuity, and powerful rhythmic drive are compelling and captivating. In this way, it passes with flying colors what I like to call “the Quintuple Challenge”:
- Is the rhythm natural and orderly, balanced with and subordinated to the other elements?
- Is the melody lyrical, interesting, and supportive of good vocal technique?
- Is the harmony well integrated with the melody and rhythm, showing skilful use of consonance and dissonance, with sufficient variety?
- Are the lyrics (if there are lyrics) expressive of or compatible with a Catholic worldview, with natural law and divine law?
- Does the music arise from and give expression to a vigorous and healthy culture? (Here is where one can reasonably look to the lifestyles, avowed intentions, and assumptions of the composers and performers, which is not an infallible sign but often a telling one.)
I have compared today’s pop music to junk food. It seems to me that we could relate styles of music to four types of food:
- Genuine sacred music = heavenly food, such as the angels feast upon
- Beautiful secular music = royal food, fit for a king’s high table
- Good folk music = whole food, for healthy daily consumption
- Modern popular music = fast food/junk food, suitable for no one
Where to begin?
“Okay, I’m willing to explore the great music, but where do I begin? It’s overwhelming. I have no idea which composers are which, or what I’d even stand a chance of liking.”
Modern technology, which has so many downsides, has unquestionably made it easier to find good music if we are “in the market” for it. On Spotify (or any similar service), when you start with a popular piece like Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons,” Handel’s “Water Music,” Bach’s Brandenburg concertos, Beethoven’s Pastoral symphony, or Vaughan Williams’s Tallis variations, Spotify will make recommendations based on user input. Such algorithms can get you only so far, but they will be helpful. Amazon and other online retailers of music make available audio snippets of CDs or MP3 albums, again allowing for sampling before purchasing.
Start with instrumental pieces and find what you like. You should be able to find something — it’s not for nothing that certain pieces in the “classical” genre have been popular for decades or centuries! Listen to these favorite pieces frequently, so you become accustomed to them. (For more detailed advice, see my separate article: “Time to Start Your Library of Classical Music.”)
Eventually, your tastes will catch up, your palate will develop, and you will find a satisfaction beyond what you imagined possible. As the old saying goes, ars longa, vita brevis: art is immense, life is brief. Our lives are much too short to waste on what is inferior.
Change is difficult. But more difficult still is trying to live a contradiction and suffering the inescapable consequences. It is better to suffer the pain of severance and aspire to the promise of a higher, purer pleasure than to settle for mediocrity and to shelter illusions of pseudo-open-mindedness. “The most ominous of modern perversions,” says Nicolás Gómez Dávila, “is the shame of appearing naïve if we do not flirt with evil.”
To those who make sacrifices for the honor and glory of His truth, goodness, and beauty, God will grant a reward, thirtyfold, sixtyfold, a hundredfold — not only in the world to come, but in this world as well.
 There were some “bad boys” in the history of artistically serious music, too, but the difference between them and our present-day musicians is that the former generally had to dissimulate their vicious life, whereas the latter openly celebrate it. Along these lines, Bob Larson’s book about the Satanic origins of and influences on rock music, The Devil’s Diversion — which is recommended by none other than Joseph Ratzinger in A New Song for the Lord — makes for eye-opening reading.
 People nowadays use the term “classical” to refer to any music other than the so-called “popular” genres such as folk, jazz, or rock. As handy a term as it may be, it’s terribly inaccurate. By rights, “classical” refers to a particular period, ca. 1770 to 1828, characterized by the music of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert. Other periods of music prior (medieval, Renaissance, Baroque) and subsequent (Romantic and modern) to this period sound very different. Second, there is plenty of “classical” (as in “serious art”) music still being composed, but it usually has little in common with the style of the aforementioned classical composers. To group together Perotin, Byrd, Corelli, Haydn, Wagner, Stravinsky, and Arvo Pärt under one category is lunacy.
 When it comes to our state in life, for example, and the particular activities connected with it, we are not required always to choose the best, simply speaking — otherwise every baptized Christian would be obliged to choose a life of consecrated virginity or celibacy. (Certainly, more Catholics should be embracing such a life, as I argue here.)
 It can accomplish this in many different ways, from slow and seductive to fast and furious. The point is not the tempo or the loudness, but the overall manner in which the musical elements achieve their impact. That popular styles are simplistic is a claim many people bristle at, but the sum total of today’s pop music could not vie with, let alone equal, the artistic qualities of a single page of Mozart.
 This may sound crazy to people living in mainstream culture, but I have been to weddings of alumni from Thomas Aquinas College and Wyoming Catholic College where the selection of music at the reception is tasteful and where real dances are done by adventurous young people. I suspect that it is somewhat like the traditional Latin Mass: the young take to it readily, while some older folks frown at the freakish behavior. The oldest of all, however, are overjoyed to see the “youngsters” doing something orderly and fun, as it reminds them of a world they might have considered extinct.
 There is something to be said for refined and subtle music, especially for the well educated listener; one’s music should match one’s general level of intellectual culture. It would be strange for those who derive literary enjoyment from Homer, Dante, and Shakespeare to subsist on the musical equivalent of hot dogs, Twinkies, and soda pop. The larger problem, then, is that modern Christians have such low cultural expectations and awareness. Individual Christians need to address this problem in their own lives, to the extent that they become aware of it.
Dr. Peter Kwasniewski, Thomistic theologian, liturgical scholar, and choral composer, is a graduate of Thomas Aquinas College and The Catholic University of America. He has taught at the International Theological Institute in Austria, the Franciscan University of Steubenville’s Austria Program, and Wyoming Catholic College, which he helped establish in 2006. He writes regularly for Catholic blogs and has published seven books, the most recent being Tradition and Sanity (Angelico, 2018). For more information, visit www.peterkwasniewski.com.