“Good music” is defined by a lot of differing options. Some say good music is based on the lyrics, others believe only in the classical, and still others measure how much skill it took to make the song. I don’t know much about music. I have no musical background and zero musical ability, but I love to listen to music. You could say I am a music connoisseur. I have been surrounded by all different kinds of music all my life; if you name the genre, I have probably experienced it. Amidst all the diversity in music, the question remains: what makes music good?
Let’s start with some definitions. What is music? Webster’s 1828 Dictionary says it is “melody or harmony; any succession of sounds so modulated as to please the ear, or any combination of simultaneous sounds in accordance of harmony.” I find it interesting that the musical components can be seemingly put together and organized in any way that “pleases the ear,” making good music out to be in the ear of the listener. If that’s the case, just about anything can be called music no matter how disorganized, loud, or odd it is. That is an awfully broad definition. Perhaps a sense of skill should be added to it? But if that’s the case, we are subjecting the definition to our own taste. So is there a standard for what good music is or is not? Well, no, not really. Should there be a standard for what we personally accept as good music? Yes, absolutely.
The first thing we need to understand is that our choice of music is a matter of the heart. What we can and cannot listen to is not a command in Scripture and not an area to impose legalism. However, Scripture does offer some good guidelines when making your playlist decisions. Consider Philippians 4:8: “Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things.” This verse complements 1 Corinthians 10:23 in biblical context: “You say, ‘Everything is permitted.’ But not everything is good for us. Again you say, ‘everything is permitted.’ But not everything builds us up.” Here we can see that the first verse provides the wisdom for the freedom expressed in the second verse.
As Christians, these verses and God’s Word as a whole guide our music decisions, but there is another filter that influences what we listen to that we have not yet explored – the sacred/secular dichotomy. This concept states that we as humans (Christians and non-Christians alike) divide our world into two categories: the sacred – going to church, reading the Bible, praying, doing good works, and singing hymns – and the secular – partying, going to a normal job, certain school choices, doing hobbies, and listening to secular music. The problem is that we are putting a divide where God did not intend one. God intended for Him, and therefore our Christian worldview, to permeate and be a part of every aspect of our lives. Not just church on Sunday but also at work during the week, whatever it may be.
In the same way, our music should be filtered through our Christian worldview, not cut off by it. When we get past the idea that music is either Christian or secular and instead choose to see all of it in light of God’s truth, we then have the freedom to reject what is harmful and accept what is good. Just because a song is labeled by a particular genre does not mean that it has been properly filtered. Remember your choice in music is a matter of the heart, so only you can decide as God leads you by His Spirit what is good for you and what will build you up.
There is another caution we must consider when exercising our freedom in music choice, and that is the effect it has on others who might hear it. God did not command what music you are to reject and accept, but He does command us to care for the weaker brother. Among our brothers and sisters in Christ there is much diversity as we are all at different maturity leaves in our faith and various places in our walk with the Lord. What one person might listen to in good conscience may violate the conscience of less spiritually discerning brothers because they believe it to be wrong. As a family of believers in Christ, we are to build one another up and not lead each other astray (Galatians 6:1-2; 10). But how can we be considerate toward our brothers and sisters while still listening to some of our favorite songs? Paul gives us the perfect example in Romans 14:13-17:
“Therefore let us not judge one another anymore, but rather resolve this, not to put a stumbling block or a cause to fall in our brother’s way. I know and am convinced by the Lord Jesus that there is nothing unclean of itself; but to him who considers anything to be unclean, to him it is unclean. Yet if your brother is grieved because of your food, you are no longer walking in love. Do not destroy with your food the one for whom Christ died. Therefore do not let your good be spoken of as evil; for the kingdom of God is not eating and drinking, but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.”
Bible teacher Tommy Nelson summed up the whole chapter of Romans 14 with the principle to “live and let but don’t let your freedom cause another believer to sin; sometimes the strong give way for the weak. In application to our music choice, you can listen to whatever you are okay with before God, but if there are other believers who only listen to Christian music or old hymns, or perhaps younger siblings in the room, make sure that the words and tone of your music are not a stumbling block to them. A stumbling block is anything that might confuse them in their faith, produce wrong or impure thoughts, or cause them to compromise their conscience before God on this matter of their heart. Here we must be careful, until perhaps they grow in the strength of their faith and understand their freedom and responsibility in listening to music.
One of the ways I personally view music is as an expression. David used Psalms (music) as expressions to the Lord and the people of what he was going through and what God was doing in his life. Hymns contain so much theology, expressing the Word of God in song. Today’s modern Christian music deals with some of the most common struggles we face in our own lives, expressing it over the airwaves and seeking to encourage listeners. I find it interesting, when listening to some secular music, the surprising truth they do express. Have you ever noticed the number of biblical allusions some of these songs contain? You might be familiar with “Demons” by Imagine Dragons, “Viva La Vida” by Coldplay, or “Pompeii” by Bastille, all of which are good examples of biblical truths in secular music. They know the point of despair and brokenness, of being surrounded by sin and not knowing where to start to fix it. They are familiar with the fallen state and realize that this is not where we are supposed to be (Romans 8:21-22). They are calling out for something like heaven but don’t know why, how to get there, or what it really is.
Now I am not saying they are right, nor am I trying to justify or spiritualize these songs. But I think it does express how much all humans long for what only God has to offer, and it displays the truth of Ecclesiastes 3:11: “[God] has also set eternity in the human heart….” There is a God-sized hole, so to speak, in each person’s heart; they know it, but at the same time they don’t. That is where our job as followers of Christ comes in. We need to show them the truth in God’s Word and bring them to the answer for their searching that is only found in Jesus Christ.
This is our ability as Christians when we live in the world but are not of it. Through music we can get a clearer sense of what the artists and listeners are searching for and the brokenness they resonate with, providing us as Christians with a clearer perspective on what the lost may need to hear. We should be in the world enough to know how to lead lost sinners to God, but we should not be of the world so that we are able to lead lost sinners to God.
We question our playlists; what should we listen to, and what evil do we need to keep our ears from hearing? How do we decide if music is good? Music is good when we choose and listen to it well. This means the ultimate good of our music is found in our hearts and in our actions: listening to music for the good and the betterment of those who listen, not allowing music to be a stumbling block for ourselves or others, using everyday songs as an opportunity to share the gospel, and above all giving praise, glory, and worship to God. In this way, no matter what genre it is, music can be good.
“Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom; teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord.” Colossians 3:16