The Power of Music, Part III

There are many everyday examples of the power of music.

A mother sings a soft, soothing lullaby, and a baby falls peacefully asleep.

A student arrives at home full of tension from a stressful school day, and a few minutes of light flute or string music drains the tension and leaves her relaxed but alert.

A man is tired in the morning and dreads the hours of work ahead of him, but a peppy march stirs him with energy for the day.

A young boy bursts through the front door full of anger, but when he hears Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony playing on the stereo, his anger is released.

Young students may be restless and find it difficult to settle down to study. A recording of a Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto, a Scarlatti Sonata, or Handel’s Water Music may help the mind to focus, plan, and execute its thoughts.

A woman wakes in the middle of the night, restless and unable to go back to sleep. She reaches down and pushes the play button on her cassette recorder. In a few minutes, she drifts off to sleep to the sounds of piano and flute improvisation mingled with sounds of ocean waves.

A woman with a severe headache listens to a recording of American Indian wooden flute for 30 minutes and goes on her way refreshed, with headache forgotten and gone.

A teacher leaves the classroom at the end of a rather difficult day feeling dull, lethargic, and slightly depressed. In her car, she reaches over to turn on the radio, which provides buoyant strains of Mozart. In less than a minute’s time, she is smiling and enthusiastic about the rest of her day.

Waking up to a clock radio that is playing beautiful, quiet music, which brings one slowly into a new day, can be helpful. If string or flute music puts you back to sleep, try something a bit peppier.

Happy music that is light and airy played during meals will promote good digestion.

Good and Bad Music

It is simply undeniable that music has strong effects on the human being, influencing both mind and body. There is, therefore, good and bad music. Good music is music that has the desired effect in any given situation. Bad music is that which has a different effect from the one desired in any given situation. All music is not appropriate in every situation.

As I have given seminars over the years on the effects of music, one thing has become particularly clear. People do not realize what the effects of music on them actually are. It is quite typical for people to vehemently declare that a certain piece of music is relaxing, when the results on the screens of testing instruments show before an entire audience precisely the opposite effects. Instead of relaxation, we note such things as increased skin stress, rise in heart rate and blood pressure, decreased skin temperature, and increased brainwave activity. Music has a great effect on each and every one of us, but very often we are mistaken about what that effect is.

The effects of music are psychophysiological and measurable by medical and psychological means. The effects of music are symptoms, just like other psychophysiological symptoms of wellness and illness. We do not disagree with the results of laboratory tests when we go in for a checkup. Nor should we think that we know better how music affects us personally than do those who have experimented, measured, and analyzed the effects of music on thousands of people and drawn scientifically-based conclusions.

God’s Music Power

Music is a very special gift of God, which He gave to us out of love. It is one of the beautiful gifts that is meant for our enjoyment.

In addition to being beautiful, God made music powerful: “As the children of Israel, journeying through the wilderness, cheered their way by the music of sacred song, so God bids His children today gladden their pilgrim life. . . . Song has wonderful power. It has power to subdue rude and uncultivated natures; power to quicken thought and to awaken sympathy, to promote harmony of action, and to banish the gloom and foreboding that destroy courage and weaken effort.” Evangelism, 496.

The chapter entitled “Song Evangelism” in the book Evangelism includes many examples of the power of music. An examination of some of these may be beneficial.

Modern research strongly confirms one example that was first published in 1903. “There are few means more effective for fixing words in the memory than repeating them in song.” Ibid.

Music plays a role in winning souls. “It is one of the most effective means of impressing the heart with spiritual truth. . . . There is great pathos and music in the human voice, and if the learner will make determined efforts, he will acquire habits of talking and singing that will be to him a power to win souls to Christ.” Ibid., 496, 500, 504.

Use music against discouragement. “Song is a weapon that we can always use against discouragement. . . . If there was much more praising the Lord, and far less doleful recitation of discouragements, many more victories would be achieved.” Ibid., 499.

Use music to resist temptation. “When Christ was a child like these children here, He was tempted to sin, but He did not yield to temptation. As He grew older He was tempted, but the songs His mother had taught Him to sing came into His mind, and He would lift His voice in praise. And before His companions were aware of it, they would be singing with Him. God wants us to use every facility which Heaven has provided for resisting the enemy.” Ibid., 488.

“When tempted, instead of giving utterance to our feelings, let us by faith lift up a song of thanksgiving to God.” Ibid., 499.

Music can prevent idolatry. “The service of song was made a regular part of religious worship, and David composed psalms, not only for the use of the priests in the sanctuary service, but also to be sung by the people in their journeys to the national altar at the annual feasts. The influence thus exerted was far-reaching, and it resulted in freeing the nation from idolatry.” Ibid., 497.

There is also instruction to sing the law. “Accordingly, Moses directed the Israelites to set the words of the law to music. While the older children played on instruments, the younger ones marched, singing in concert the song of God’s commandments. In later years they retained in their minds the words of the law which they learned during their childhood. If it was essential for Moses to embody the commandments in sacred song, so that as they marched in the wilderness, the children could learn to sing the law verse by verse, how essential it is at this time to teach our children God’s word!” Ibid., 499, 500.

Music will provide a connection with God. “There must be a living connection with God in prayer, a living connection with God in songs of praise and thanksgiving. . . . Let us do everything in our power to make music in our homes, that God may come in.” Ibid., 498, 500. This is the greatest, most important power of music. “The highest mission of music is to serve as a link between God and man. It builds a bridge over which angelic hosts can come closer to mankind.” Hal Lingerman, Life Streams, The Theosophical Publishing House, Wheaton, Illinois, 1988, 63. . . .

Music brings heaven’s gladness to man. “With songs of thanksgiving He [Jesus] cheered His hours of labor, and brought heaven’s gladness to the toil-worn and disheartened.” Evangelism, 498, 499.

We glorify God by singing. “God is glorified by songs of praise from a pure heart filled with love and devotion to Him.” Ibid., 510.

God sings in joyfulness over us. “He will rejoice over thee with joy; he will rest in His love, he will joy over thee with singing.” Zephaniah 3:17. “The Father Himself joys over the rescued one with singing. What a holy ecstasy of joy is expressed in this parable!” Ibid., 500.

Following is a list summarizing God’s powerful benefits of music:

  • Impresses truth on the heart.
  • Memory.
  • Subdues rude and uncultivated natures.
  • Quickens thought.
  • Awakens sympathy.
  • Promotes harmony of action.
  • Banishes gloom and foreboding.
  • Frees a nation from idolatry.
  • Provides a connecting link with God.
  • Uplifts thoughts to high and noble themes.
  • Inspires and elevates the soul.
  • Wins souls.
  • Drives the enemy away.

Language of Music

There is a longstanding discussion among musicians and others as to whether or not music is a universal language. The participants in this discussion all recognize that music is a language. Some think people understand music only in the context of their own culture. Some people claim that music has no intrinsic meaning or moral effect but is amoral. Others claim that music has much meaning, and different music have diverse effects, such as happy, sad, uplifting, exhilarating, etc., concluding that music has many differing and definite meanings. . . .

Music has a strong influence on human beings. Therefore, we need to learn to control music, to use it for the effects we want to promote in ourselves at any given time. Some music may be good for one situation and bad for another. If we consider why music has the power it does, we will be better able to choose the kind of music we need to reach our desired goals. . . .

Music Carries Message

“If we think of music as a kind of lubricant and sweetener to get the words ‘across,’ we grossly underestimate the nature of music. If we are really concerned with a musical witness, we must make sure that religious texts have something to say, and then use only music (medium) that is conformable to that which is being sung. If the gospel is to be witnessed to, the art form itself must effectively reflect it. The words (theology) and music (art) must match.” Calvin Johansson, Music and Ministry, Hendrickson Publishers, Peabody, MA, 1990, 42. . . .

The music carries the message. Therefore, it must have inherently the characteristics of what the words mean. How does it do this? Consider emotional content.

Emotional Effect

David Tame discusses physical and emotional effects of music. Consonant and dissonant chords, different intervals, and other features of music all exert effects on pulse and respiration. Blood pressure is lowered by sustained chords and raised by crisp, repeated ones. The larynx tightens during a descending series of chords. The larynx is influenced by man’s emotions and thought processes. Music affects the body in two distinct ways: directly, as the effect of sound upon the cells and organs, and by affecting the emotions, which in turn influence bodily processes. (The Secret Power of Music, Destiny Books, Rochester, Vermont, 1984, 137.)

Tame further proposes that words are mere symbols of real things, ideas, etc., only symbols of real inner feelings. On the other hand, music conveys the very emotional essence or reality. In other words, music actually conveys the emotion itself, not just a symbol of it. Ibid., 146.

Music Molds Character

What effect does this have? Tame makes an interesting claim: “Who can doubt that music influences our emotions? It is surely true that music is only listened to in the first place because it makes us feel something. But now this is very interesting, for if music gives us feelings, then these feelings—of uplift, joy, energy, melancholy, violence, sensuality, calm, devotion, and so forth—can certainly be said to be experiences. And the experiences which we have in life are a vitally important factor in the molding of our character. . . . Music molds character.” Ibid.

Ellen White is even more emphatic. She says, “The low, common, pleasure parties, gatherings for eating and drinking, singing and playing on instruments of music, are inspired by a spirit that is from beneath.” Special Testimonies on Education, 211. After naming several other things, she continues, “The greatest evil of it all is the permanent effect these things have upon the character.” Ibid.

A Universal Language

Scott is clearly in agreement. “It [music] is so insidious that it suggests while the listener remains unaware of the fact. All that he realizes is that it awakens certain emotions, and that in degree those same emotions are always awakened by the same or similar musical compositions. Music, therefore, is constantly suggesting to him states of emotions and reproducing them in him, and as emotional habits are as readily formed as, or even more readily than, other habits, they eventually become a part of his character. It is obvious that Aristotle was aware of this when he wrote that ‘by music a man becomes accustomed to feeling the right emotions.’ ” Cyril Scott, Music: Its Secret Influence Throughout the Ages, The Aquarian Press, Welling-borough, Northamptonshire, England, 1958.

Johansson (op. cit.) believes that music must contain both the emotion and the intellect, and neither should be stressed at the expense of the other. He says that the gospel song is emotional through and through with no concern for intellectual qualities. Victorian hymns and anthems are strongly cloying, sentimental, and sweet. Much late nineteenth and twentieth century American church music centers on the emotional and the main feature of pop-gospel rock is an emotionalistic drive.

Tame (op. cit., 155) also claims a moral effect for music. All of this leads to the conclusion that the communication of musical language is more than the formal intellectual type of communication, but it also communicates feelings and emotions. . . .

We find that the same emotions are found internationally and that music communicates actual, not symbolic, emotions directly. This appears to be a strong foundation for the statement, “Music is a universal language.”

How Music Does This

How can music do this? Deryck Cooke analyzed extensively many musical examples “to establish the terms of its vocabulary and to explain how these terms may legitimately be said to express the emotions they appear to.” The Language of Music, Oxford University Press, London, England, 1959, 34. He started with the base material, notes of definite pitch, and showed “that musical works are built out of the tensions between such notes. These tensions can be set up in three dimensions—pitch, time, and volume: and the setting up of such tensions, and the colouring of them by the characterizing agents of tone-colour and texture, constitute the whole apparatus of musical expression.” Ibid., 34. The basis of the tonal tensions is the harmonic. A single note sets up a harmony of its own, and this harmonic series has been the (unconscious) basis of Western European harmony and the tonal system. This is the source of the tonal tension. . . . Cooke found that specific things in the different elements produce specific emotions . . . .

“The louder the music gets, the more emphasis is given to what is being expressed; and naturally, the converse holds good—the softer, the less emphasis. . . . When we get to pp or pppp (as soft as possible), the composer achieves the emphasis of secrecy, forcing what he has to say upon our attention by making us strain our ears. . . .” Ibid., 96.

In music, time expresses the speed and rhythm of feelings and events: the state of mental, emotional, or physical animation. In music there is duple and triple time—one strong beat and one weak beat, and one strong beat and two weak beats. As a general rule, duple rhythm is more rigid and controlled; triple rhythm is more relaxed and abandoned.

Rhythmic accent throws emphasis on a given note in the scheme of tonal tensions and thus qualifies the emotional expression of a burst of anguish. This is where syncopation can play a large role, especially in rock music.

Tempo is the speed at which a piece of music goes—the faster, the more animation. “The effect of tempo on emotional expression is clearly all-important, since every basic emotion can be experienced at many different levels of animation.” Ibid., 99. Joy may be tumultuous, easy-going, or serene, depending on the tempo. Despair may be hysterical or resigned. Even or jerky tempos also make a difference.

Pitch also has an effect on emotions. Primarily, pitch can rise and fall. To rise in pitch in the major is normally to express an outgoing feeling of pleasure, assertiveness, expressions of courage, battle music, etc. To fall in pitch in the major is normally to express an incoming feeling of pleasure, such as an acceptance of soothing comfort. To rise in pitch in the minor is normally to express an outgoing feeling of pain, possibly excited, aggressive affirmation of or a portent against, a painful feeling. To fall in pitch in the minor is normally to express an incoming feeling of pain: fierce despair, slow and loud; subjection to fate, also slow and loud.

Emotions Inherent in Music

These are a few examples of what the basic terms of musical vocabulary communicate to us. . . . The presence of emotions in the elements still remains when they are put in the context of a piece of music. Cooke says, “Music is no more incapable of being emotionally intelligible because it is bound by the laws of musical construction than poetry is because it is bound by the laws of verbal grammatical construction.” Ibid., 211. . . .

The reason music has such strong effects on us is because the emotions are inherent in the music. Research confirms this. . . . McCraty et al. supplied four types of music to 144 subjects. “With grune rock music, significant increases were found in hostility, sadness, tension and fatigue, and significant reductions were observed in caring, relaxation, mental clarity, and vigor. After listening to designer music (music designed to have specific effects on the listener), significant increases in caring, relaxation, mental clarity, and vigor were measured; significant decreases were found in hostility, fatigue, sadness, and tension.” “The Effects of Different Types of Music on Mood, Tension, and Mental Clarity,” Alternative Therapy Health Medicine (4), 75–84. . . .

In depth, musical analysis by Cooke (op. cit.) shows that the specific elements of music produce specific emotions. . . . Extensive research demonstrates that the same emotions are produced in scientific research worldwide. Tame (op. cit.) says that when listening to music, musical communication takes place directly through the specific emotions entering the listener. This confirms the theory that music is a universal language. This also explains why there is good and bad music, why music is not amoral, why some music has deleterious effects. This explains the effects of the devil’s counterfeit musics, such as rock, country, and contemporary Christian. If people understood this, it would make a difference in the arguments about what music is appropriate for church worship. This is true of all music. It will be either beneficial or harmful. One needs to exercise caution in choosing music for one’s home, for one’s church, and for any environment in which one spends time. Music can qualify or disqualify for heaven.

Reprinted from The Lord is My Song, Print-Quik, Inc., Madison, Tennessee, 2002, 51–63, and summarized from a 2003 Steps to Life camp meeting presentation.

Juanita McElwain earned her PhD in Music Therapy from Florida State University. She has taught music on all levels from preschool to college graduate. She has worked as a music therapy clinician with the mentally challenged. Her areas of expertise in research include the effects of music on brain waves and the effects of music on headache. She has given numerous seminars on the power of music, which include good and bad effects of music—rock music, sensual music, music in worship and mind control through music—throughout the United States and in Europe. She and her husband are presently retired in West Virginia. She may be contacted by e-mail at: