Dangerous Music


Essays warning about the danger of certain kinds of music stretch back at least 2350 years to the time of Plato and Aristotle. The concept of “ethos” ascribed certain ethical characteristics to each of the different Greek modes. Plato believed the Dorian would positively mold character because it helped make men stronger, but he warned against the Lydian mode because it enfeebled the mind.

Attitudes like these persist into the 21st century, although instead of the key or mode, it is a certain style of music which is deemed dangerous or immoral. In the essay “Morality in Music,” John E. Peters reports:

Tests have been done on rats, where two different sets of rats were exposed to different types of music; one classical and the other rock. The rats which were exposed to hard rock began killing and eating each other. It also took them a great amount of time to get through simple mazes. The classical rats on the other hand got along well with each other and also could find their way through the same mazes in record time.

And in an essay on Soca music and moral decadence in Trinidad and Tobago by Dr. Kwame Nantambu: “the evidence is very clear and convincing that immorality and public sexual vulgarity have surpassed the nadir of their bottomless pit.” Similar claims have been made about blues, jazz, rap, and the 17th the century European sarabande, to name a few. As I wrote in “What makes American music great,”

The wild, uninhibited dancing that came to be associated with jazz in the 1920s aroused a lot of antipathy from more tradition-bound society. In 1926, for instance, the Cincinnati Salvation Army obtained a temporary injunction against the construction of a movie theater because jazz music emanating from the theater would implant “jazz emotions” in babies in the neighboring maternity hospital.

I’m not talking about lyrics, which have their own dangerous history, banned by governments for their revolutionary messages. Accusations that there is an inherently immoral character in certain music and rhythms keeps getting recycled. The fear is often a fear of the erotic, mirroring a long-standing prejudice in Christianity and Islam. But the idea that keys or rhythms produce certain effects is not always focused on the negative. European music theory texts of the 18th century assigned certain emotional characteristics to each key. Composers sometimes chose particular keys for these reasons, even though the writings often contradicted each other as to the meaning of a certain key: in one text, D major was shrill and stubborn, while in another it was gay and brilliant.

Most of us laugh at claims that rock music causes plants to wither and die. Rhythm, harmony and melody are abstract qualities that express nothing specific in themselves. There is a cultural context in which those elements combine to create mood or inspire us to move, but there are too many variables and complex interactions to imagine that a particular sound equates to a particular action. For at least five hundred years people have been worrying that a certain dance heralds the downfall of civilization. The dance keeps changing, and we’re still here.

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Jon O’Bergh



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