Music That Nurtures the Soul (Part 1 of 2)


The German blitz of London during World War 2 brought fear and uncertainty to Londoners that is unknown to most Americans. They fell asleep at night, not knowing if they would awaken or if their homes would still be standing in the morning. If they awoke, it was often to the wail of ambulance sirens and the tinkling sound of broken glass. They would sometimes smell the reeking odor of the blood of their neighbors as they found the bombed apartment next door or across the street. 

Many did not have access to items such as butter, milk, meat, string, and paper. Then, the Londoners turned to what they did have: music. Myra Hess organized piano concerts in the National Gallery. Due to nighttime blackouts mandated to make it harder for German bombers to find their targets, the concerts were held five days a week at lunchtime. People silently crowded into the empty gallery (the paintings had been moved to safer locations) and sat on the floor to listen to the music of Bach, Schubert, Mozart, and other composers. They were frightened, and the music gave them solace and delight amid their fear. It helped them face another horrible night of bombing. 

This story suggests that the right kind of music can nurture the soul (mind, will, and emotions) and help sustain us when we are brought face to face with the brokenness of this world and the uncertainty of life. What kind of music nurtures the soul? Are there kinds that do not nurture and may instead harm the soul? After sharing the story above, Rene Clausen asked the question, “How would today’s generation respond to vulnerability of this proportion? If they turned to music, what meaning and salvation might they draw from MTV videos, or the latest offerings of shocking lyrics from rappers and a host of heavy metal bands?”1 

Music is sound organized within time by fallen humans.

The reaction to the Covid pandemic coupled with racial strife in the summer of 2020 gives us a clue to the answer to Clausen’s question. During the summer of 2020, vandals and looters caused over $2 billion in damages in American cities. Could today’s popular music be a contributing factor to the outrage so prevalent in American society? 

Though it is difficult to trace how music affects individuals and societies, we should be aware that music can and does affect us for good or ill. It is not neutral, as many have suggested. Music is not just sound waves hitting the ear drum. Music is sound organized within time by fallen humans. 

Music affects us in at least three ways. First, music can reduce our inhibitions. An inhibition is a “restraint on the direct expression of an instinct.” Inhibitions are good when they restrain our sinful nature. But when those inhibitions are reduced through drugs, alcohol, or music, humans may give in to acts of debauchery that they otherwise would not. 

Take, for example, the story of the children of Israel worshiping the golden calf in Exodus 32. As Moses and Joshua trudged down the mountain toward the camp, Joshua observed, “There is a noise of war in the camp.” Moses replied, “It is not the voice of them that shout for mastery, neither is it the voice of them that cry for being overcome: but the noise of them that sing do I hear.” As they came near the camp, they saw the people dancing around the golden calf. If that was not disturbing enough for Moses, verse 25 states “Moses saw that the people were naked; (for Aaron had made them naked unto their shame among their enemies).” 

How did Aaron convince the people to undress? It seems probable that singing and dancing played a significant role in reducing their inhibitions. Then, all Aaron had to do was suggest the idea to a few people until the idea gained momentum. 

Daniel 3 records a story of when Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, used music to reduce inhibitions to idol worship. He crafted an enormous image of gold and set it up on the plain of Dura. He summoned dignitaries from every province in his empire to come to the dedication of the image. The Babylonian Symphony Orchestra was at the dedication. A herald commanded the dignitaries to bow before the image when the orchestra started to play.  

Why was the orchestra at the dedication, and why were they to give the signal for bowing to the idol? Nebuchadnezzar realized that many of the proud dignitaries from nations he conquered might be reluctant to bow before the image. So, he took precautions to reduce the chance of public defiance. He rightly understood that his hometown orchestra was one of the finest in the world, and their music could be employed to reduce inhibitions to worshiping the image and to fill the dignitaries with a sense of patriotism for the Babylonian empire and its king. And just in case this subtle approach did not work to get everyone in a patriotic mood, Nebuchadnezzar threatened the throng of dignitaries with death in the fiery furnace if they refused to bow to his image. 

Even in modern times, politicians play music at their rallies. Like Nebuchadnezzar, they understand that music can subtly reduce reservations some may have about a candidate and help galvanize their support. 

The orchestra played on the plain of Dura, and the throng of dignitaries bowed down before the image, except for three young men who stood straight. The church needs men and women today who will stand straight, although music and peer pressure beguile them to sin. It would be even better to avoid such environments entirely if given the choice. 

Critics may say that the Scripture texts do not explicitly say how the music influenced the listeners. The texts only record that music was performed and what the people did next. True. Many know instinctively, however, even with minimal knowledge of rock concert mania and bar room decadence, that music can significantly reduce inhibitions even in people who frequently listen to recorded music. How much greater must the impact of music have been on people who rarely if ever heard such music? 

 After sharing this topic at a music camp chapel, a woman came up to me and said, “You are exactly right about music reducing inhibitions. Do not let anyone doubt it.” She then shared that she frequented bars with friends before becoming a Christian. Music was obviously used to reduce inhibitions to immorality, and it worked. 

A second way music can affect us is by creating an atmosphere. Like our physical atmosphere, an aural atmosphere can be healthy or polluted. Prolonged exposure to a polluted atmosphere can cause health problems, so Christians should consider how their aural atmosphere may be affecting their spiritual health. 

Music is not so powerful that it can force us to do anything, but the atmosphere it creates can incline us to speak, think, or behave in ways consistent with that atmosphere. It is hard for some to believe this is true because the effects of the atmosphere happen slowly over time. You may not detect day-to-day changes caused by the atmosphere, but changes over several years will be obvious. 

Lyle Stutzman illustrates this idea like this:  

Compare a child who grows up in a tense atmosphere to a child who grows up in a relaxed atmosphere, and you will see big differences. But swapping atmospheres for a day will not affect either child much. Swapping atmospheres for five years will. The same is true with music. What we listen to for one day might not be a big deal, but what we listen to year after year is a big deal.2 

Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 15:33, “Be not deceived: evil communications corrupt good manners.” The warning “be not deceived” is given because we are tempted to believe we are so strong that we can withstand being changed by evil influences and companionships. Paul says, “Don’t believe it!” The atmosphere we choose to inhabit will change us. 

A third way that music can affect us is through the spirit world. A few stories in Scripture indicate that the spirit world responds to music. In a story recorded in 2 Chronicles 20, Ammon, Moab, and Mount Seir ally to attack Judah. Jehoshaphat, King of Judah, decided on the astonishing strategy of meeting them with an army led by selected singers singing “Praise the LORD; for his mercy endureth forever.” 

Notwithstanding music’s power to lower inhibitions and create atmosphere, the enemy alliance would have swiftly massacred the weaponless singers in a purely physical world. Instead, God acted in response to the praise. “When they began to sing and to praise, the LORD set ambushments against the children of Ammon, Moab, and mount Seir, which were come against Judah; and they were smitten.” 2 Chronicles 20:22 

Paul and Silas confirm the effectiveness of singing as a spiritual resource. While in stocks in the Philippian prison, “Paul and Silas prayed and sang praises unto God: and the prisoners heard them. And suddenly there was a great earthquake, so that the foundations of the prison were shaken: and immediately all the doors were opened, and every one’s bands were loosed.” (Acts 16:25-26) 

Both stories demonstrate the power of praying and singing. We recognize the power of prayer, but what if we would follow our spoken petitions with praises sung to God? The combination of praying and singing has significant influence in the throne room of God, but we too often neglect singing as a spiritual resource. 

Another Bible story illustrates the power of music to chase away evil spirits. 1 Samuel 16 records that an evil spirit troubled Saul. The demon-chasing power of skillfully performed harp music was already established because Saul’s servants suggested that he seek a “cunning” harpist. Saul accepted the suggestion, and they found David. Would David’s harp performance help Saul? It did! Verse 23 documents, “And it came to pass, when the evil spirit from God was upon Saul, that David took a harp, and played with his hand: so, Saul was refreshed, and was well, and the evil spirit departed from him.” 

Music is not neutral.

The harp music healed Saul in all three parts of his being. His soul was refreshed. His body was made well. And he was healed spiritually (at least somewhat) as the evil spirit departed. Such is the nurturing power of good music! 

This story raises a question. Could a different kind of music have the opposite effect? Are there kinds of music that attract evil spirits rather than repel them? Though the Bible does not clearly answer this question, it is well-known that many non-Christian religions use music in idol worship or to communicate with the spirit world. For example, a central ritual of Haitian Vodou involves drumming, singing, and dancing to encourage a spirit to possess a community member and communicate with them.3 

Music is wonderful! It can lift our minds and emotions in the highest praise to God. It can chase evil spirits and nurture our souls. But music can also be unhealthy and troubling to our souls. It can lower inhibitions to sin and pollute our aural atmosphere. It can invite evil spirits. 

Music is not neutral. Our society is double minded on this point. On the one hand, they want to say it does not matter what you listen to. On the other hand, businesses will spend lots of money to create just the right jingle to help sell their product. Their data indicates that this kind of investment pays off. We should agree with their evaluation that music matters. 

To be continued… 

The objective of part two will be to evaluate the criteria often used to choose music and propose alternate criteria that will help us choose music that nurtures the soul. 

1. Clausen, Dr. Rene. “Where Will We Find Sanctuary,” Church Music Institute. 

2. Lyle Stutzman, “Musical Notes with Lyle Stutzman,” interview by Troy Stauffer. Radi-Call, June 24, 2019. 

3 “Haitian Vodou.”

Nolan Martin

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