Keepapitchinin, the Mormon History blog » Problems of the Age: 26: Music

Problems of the Age: 26: Music

By: Ardis E. Parshall - April 19, 2011

For links to other parts of this series, see this chart.

For a statement on the unofficial nature (i.e., personal interpretation for discussion purposes, not necessarily representative of church doctrine) of these lessons, see this notice.


Dealing with Religious, Social and Economic Questions and Their Solution.
A Study for the Quorums and Classes of the Melchizedek Priesthood. 1917-1918.

By Dr. Joseph M. Tanner

XXVI. – Music

History – It is from the historical and moral side that I approach this subject, which is as old as the human race, and as diversified as human life. Of all the arts and accomplishments given for the entertainment and pleasure of man, none has been a greater source of pleasure. It exalts, refines, ennobles, soothes, and heals the human heart. It also entices, charms, and persuades the human soul to leave its moral anchorage and enter the reams of dissipation and vice. Music, s it comes from instruments, is an unspoken language, but saturated with every suggestion of human thought and feeling. As an expression of the human emotions, it has both a moral and licentious aspect. It has been made more dangerous to human life because it is usually unsuspected of any wrong. It may beguile and seduce those who, in the beginning, could not be touched by any other form of pleasure that entices to wrong-doing.

Dangers. – I speak first of the dangers of music. The vibrations of our inner life are set in motion by this royal pastime. It enters the domain of our thoughts and feelings, mostly of our feelings. These it helps us to conceal, but the vibrations of thought and feeling, once set in motion, carry us on to action. From the earliest times, music has been the companion of evil consorts. Its value has been fully known, not only in the dens of vice, but in the palaces where excessive luxuries and insinuating corruptions find a gilded home. The world has long known the evil of certain entertainments. It has known the effects it has had in the bawdy house, the barroom, and the promiscuous dance hall. Moral loving communities would not tolerate for one moment in their homes the companionship of the lewd, the frivolously gay, and the licentious devotees of the dance. They believe they have abolished corrupting evils when they have drawn the line which excludes the men and women who symbolize them. That is but one step: the music that helps to beget a vitiated life they often admit without question even to the inner sanctuaries of their homes. Who has not stopped to listen, as he passed along the rod, to some music in the home, to wonder how such strains of immoral tones could be permitted there? The fact is, people never suspect that there can be an immoral sound, when the truth is, immoral sounds have helped from the beginning to beget immoral lives.

Oriental Vice. – some years ago, when the writer was in Egypt, he was invited to witness some dance scenes that gave an illustration of the contortions and immoral movements of the human body. These motions were set to music, and he was told that men often resorted to these musical demonstrations that they might enjoy all the more later on the vices into which they were about to cast themselves. Along the quays of the great oriental cities, where vice runs rampant, music acts as the siren which charms men from their onward course in life to the sinful intonations of the dance hall and evil resorts. There is a kindred between tone and motion: sound is said to move along in waves; it has its rhythm. These waves create movements, thoughts, and feelings that are in harmony with them. Strange that every blessed thing which God revealed to man, Satan has been present to deform; that what was intended for exaltation may be turned to debasement, – and after all, we have hardly suspected that such was true of music.

Emotions. – We now have the rag-time, and the “Jazz” that may be witnessed on the dancing floors of our resorts. The contortions of the body give rise to contortions of the mind. One might easily imagine as he looked on the ball-room scenes of some pleasure resort, that he had been taken back to the voluptuary gardens of ancient times, and to the days of Rome and Greece, when the Jazz, under another name, was corrupting, undermining the social life of the nations who gave themselves up to its indulgences. It is the old, old story that evil companions corrupt good morals, and there is an evil companionship in music.

Exalting. – but music exalts, it refines, ennobles, and charms with the spirits of virtue the human soul. We have our music: we aim in the early periods of life so to saturate our youth with the sweet, innocent strains of the Sabbath school song that it will take possession of them, and leave little room for the music whose vulgar tones would invite them into an erring life.

The emotions of the soul are real. There is a rhythm in life; we respond to the subtle influences that we cannot see, we cannot analyze, we can only feel. If we would have a correct balance of life, and its elements properly mixed within us, we should not exclude music any more than we exclude prayer. It should be in our homes, to encourage and to fortify us. Thus, we sing in the Sabbath schools songs that awaken our religious emotions, our patriotism, our devotion, our worshipful thoughts. We sing, too, in congregations, that the harmony in one soul may be the harmony in all. Our children gather in concerts and enjoy the mutual helpfulness of congregational songs.

It is not easy to define the line of cleavage between two forms of music, but in a general way they must be distinguished. Nor is it always a matter of art: perhaps a soul attuned to the worship of God might more readily detect an improper coloring to music than the finest artist. The hymns of John Wesley have had a marvelous influence upon the religious emotions. The older generations will remember how fond our late President, Brigham Young, was of these devotional hymns. We have endeavored to make such a classifications would put our musical life on the moral side of sound.

Jazz. – There is perhaps no more sinful temptation among our young people today than the insinuating sounds that come from the siren voice of a license-loving age. The thoughtful world is just beginning to realize how far the Jazz and kindred music is carrying us from the moorings of our moral safety. I quote from a writer in the Chicago Herald, of November 4, 1917. There the celebrated violinist, Isador Berger, says:

The white man took the negro’s ‘Jungle time’ and ‘ragged’ it unmercifully. It was a great success among people who preferred not to consider the moral phases of the question. Clergymen and social service forces over the country stormed against this kind of music, calling it ‘obscene, indecent, demoralizing, etc.’, but the world that loved amusement for its own sake went on acclaiming ‘;jazz’ tunes as the acme of entertainment.

but when America went into the war the song writers turned to patriotic tunes. They began to turn out marching tunes in the hope that the soldiers would seize upon one for their favorite and make for its authors the amount of money which the British ‘Tommies’ made for the writers of ‘It’s a Long, Long Way to Tipperary.’

Cafes, tea dansants, dancing pavilions, are tingling now with these stirring martial airs. Some of the old ragtime tunes still ‘hang on,’ but half-heartedly, as though they knew it, like other soft, luxurious things, they must disappear before the strident note of war.

‘War music arouses the best in man, while “jazz” music appeals to the lowest elements in his nature,’ says Louis Guyon, a dancing master of Chicago who has won great prosperity for himself by refusing to permit the modern dances to be performed on his mammoth floor. ‘I have always fought the “ragtime” dance as immoral, indecent and vulgar, and I have found that thousands of people still felt that the old-time waltz, two-step and polka were totally different from the “jazz” measures.

‘Marching tunes and martial music are written in a tempo that does not lend itself to syncopation.

Legitimate music appeals to human feeling and soulful appreciation. It makes the mind ‘dreamy’ and imaginative. It does not excite base thoughts. It may develop abstract love and the spirit of sacrifice for a loved one, but it does not fan the flames of physical passion as does the music which accompanies the one-step and the fox trot. These qualities make it permanent and enduring, while the ‘jazz’ tunes are reliant upon qualities that make them valueless tomorrow. Their fleeting nature is a proof of their efficiency in meritorious characteristics.

A great German painter, Alois Kolb, with the Teutonic artist’s love of the gross and grotesque, once painted a picture of profane music which modern moralists insist describes the spirit of the modern dance as it was before the sterner music began to crowd it out. He pictured Satan playing a violin from the pedestal from which the sphinx, symbol of cruelty and lust, looked down upon a maudlin world.

Human beings made mad by the debased music of Satan danced below in an orgy of indecency. At the bottom of the picture Kolb placed the snake-haired head of Medusa, the mythical goddess one sight of whom would turn a human being to stone. Medusa stood for vice in the mind of the primitive man; the writhing reptiles that were her hair symbolized the ghastliness and repulsion of crime, and the ruination of the man who looked upon her personified the deadening effect which familiarity with wickedness producers in the human being.

Music has sometimes been classified according to the society it keeps. Even in ancient times this classification prevailed. Its appeal is directly to the feelings, and it is perhaps true to say that it touches the passions more strongly than even the spoken or written word. When such music is applied to the dance, it brings to its aid the baser imaginations which give thoughts and feelings of the most degenerate character. It is a powerful truth, and yet we have scarcely begun to sense it, that there is an evil music to be shunned, just as there is an evil companionship.

Qualities. – the evils of debased music are more insidious because of the almost universal indifference if not ignorance about the kinds of music. Yet when we stop to think, there are as many kinds of music as there are peculiar qualities and characteristics in individuals: we have music that encourages frivolity. I once heard a musician say that “if I played long such music I should become down-right lazy.” Then there must be music that induces idleness, just as there is music that creates excessive hilarity and light mindedness. If we were as choice about the music which we permit in our homes as we are about the character of the language used, we should eliminate much of it that is positively evil. Music is a power or a gift to man that was intended to delight, to exalt, to refine, and to encourage. It is a part of the noblest traits of human life. But like many other exalted states of being, it has found degeneracy with other degenerate conditions of life. It is more dangerous because of its unsuspected and not easily detected evil influences.

Latter-day Saints’ Point of View. – “If thou art merry, praise the Lord with singing, with music, with dancing, and with a prayer of praise and thanksgiving” (Doc. and Cov. 136:28).

This is part of a revelation given to Brigham Young in 1847.

Music and dancing associated with praise and prayer, make them acceptable to God.


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