Thursday, March 23, 2017

Music and morality

Many people, maybe most people, are music lovers. This raises questions about the morality of music. What about music that has an immoral message? Is it morally compromising to enjoy such music? Is it morally compromising to perform such music? 

To take a few examples, Frank Sinatra immortalized "Strangers in the Night," which extols the one-night stand. Jon Vickers once said Wagner composed Tristan and Isolde to rationalize his adulterous affairs–which raises questions about how Vickers could justify singing Tristan. Dido's Lament ("When I am laid in earth"), from Purcell's Dido and Aeneas, glorifies suicide. In that respect it reflects the heathen Roman values of Virgil.

Examples could be multiplied, but that's sufficient to frame the issue.

i) A listener might enjoy the tune, but ignore the lyrics. 

ii) A listener might impute his own significance to the lyrics. Although original intent may often be normative when it comes to interpretation–although the creative process has a subliminal element, so that authors aren't necessarily aware of the full significance of what they write–that doesn't compel a reader or listener to share the author's outlook.

iii) However, it's harder to see how a performer can maintain that dichotomy. Whatever his mental reservations, if any, he's projecting the sense of the lyrics, and the lyrics have a sense that's independent of the performer. Linguistic meaning has an objective component.  

Likewise, in opera, the singer is an instrument of the story. By playing a role, he discharges the dramatic function of the character. 

That, though, would be different from singing in private, for your own enjoyment, 

iv) In some respects, opera is a paradoxical art form. For instance, opera singers often play romantic roles, yet many opera singers are chunky-built. They don't look the part of romantic leads. 

Likewise, Tristan and Isolde is a love story, but due to Wagner's dense orchestration, it requires voices that excel in stamina and power rather than a seductive timbre. There are aspects of opera that sabotage the goal, necessitating a greater than ordinary willing suspension of disbelief. And that makes it easier to mentally detach the message from the messenger. 

v) Studio recordings are different. You don't see the singer–if it's an audio recording rather than a music video. Moreover, lighter, more sensuous voices can sing heavier parts in studio recordings and music videos than they could risk in the opera house. 

vi) Occasionally, there are opera singers who look the part and/or sound the part. But that's a rare package. That's more common in pop vocalism, there the physical demands are less strenuous.   

vii) In addition, sex appeal is contingent on the sexual orientation of the listener or viewer. For instance, Franco Correlli has sex appeal for female opera buffs, but not for straight males. Likewise, Kiri Te Kanawa has sex appeal for male opera buffs, but not for women. 

viii) That said, there are listeners and viewers who strongly identify with the sentiments of immoral music. They revel in the message.


  1. Back in the 1980s a contemporary Christian Music magazine wrote about what I'll call "association." The point was that lyrics have a way of bringing up in our minds and memory all kinds of good and bad thoughts. If I listen to a pleasing melody but the lyrics cause me to think about adultery, I should stop the music. I'm guilty of associating those lyrics to adultery. Even if the song itself is not clearly talking about adultery, my mind is already there. The song itself isn't immoral - but now my thoughts, as a result of listening to the song, are steeped in immorality.

  2. Lyrics in pop music today are the reason I do not listen to it. I am now a metalhead!

  3. How can one tell whether the composer or writer is extolling immoral actions or simply portraying the actions of an immoral or conflicted person?

    I don't think it's always obvious.

    1. There are certainly situations in which that's the case. Depends on what we know about the personal views/lifestyle of the composer, lyricist/librettist.