Science in Christian Perspective



Music, God, and Psychology
1150 Scenid Drive
Toccoa, Georgia 30577

From: JASA 35 (June 1983): 102-104.

Few Christians have seriously considered the possible relationship between psychological principles and Christian music forms, although a few have ventured to give advice that might sound "psychological" to those outside the field of academic psychology, most notably some anti-rock crusaders. The relationship between music and psychology has rarely been given serious consideration, but going the next step to consider Christian or church music as they relate to psychology has been almost completely ignored.

Yet it seems to me that there are a number of possible insights that psychology can give in understanding this often controversial area of Christian music. Behavioral psychology particularly may contribute to the psychological analysis of music used in religious circles, although other branches of psychology need not be excluded. This communication considers the potential interface between psychology and Christian music.

Few psychologists have made serious attempts at relating psychological theory to music. One sociologist (Hoult, 1979) posits that musical talent is the product of learning via positive, rewarding experiences, which implies behavioral conditioning theory. He points out that gifted children are usually raised by musical families that emphasize the value of music through conversation and listening to music, thus negating a genetic theory of musical giftedness. As an example, Hoult describes a Japanese music teacher who chose a large number of children without regard for talent, and made each one-without exception-into an excellent string musician, largely playing music by ear.

Hoult's conclusion is quite controversial, but the value of psychological theory in understanding musical behavior can be observed. Rather than concentrating upon the genesis of ability, however, the primary concern here is music and its behavioral and emotional effect upon humans.

Classical conditioning can particularly help in understanding the emotional responses many have to particular songs. Experiences in listening to various forms of music, combined with affection and an otherwise pleasant environment, may help to instill positive associations with certain forms of music. As an infant, for example, the primary reinforcement of milk may be consumed while the mother sings to the child (or as music plays in the background), so that music becomes a secondary (learned) reinforcer. Likewise, as a youth, pleasant associations with one of the opposite sex accompanied by a particular tune on the radio, may be responsible for the "that's our song" phenomenon. Emotional responses may be conditioned responses to a particular song or perhaps even to certain chord and/or note progressions, the latter comprising the conditioned stimulus. Thus the person may respond with a statement "that's a pretty tune" or "that's familiar" due to a pleasant past experience accompanying similar or identical performances. This may be the result of long-forgotten conditioning, but the classically conditioned stimuli still produce the particular emotional response.

With additional education and broad exposure to differing qualities of music, the individual may come to discriminate poor from good performances of a selection. In such a case, similar stimuli to those stimuli in the past that were considered "good music" will also be considered to be of a positive quality (stimulus generalization), while stimuli quite different (i.e., a poorly executed performance of a well-known song) will not be considered positively due to stimulus discrimination. With more experience, discriminations become finer and finer, just as Pavlov's dogs were able to make finer and finer discriminations of the pitch of the ringing bell associated with salivation.

Emotional Response

Christians also make associations between their music and their emotions through classical conditioning, although operant conditioning probably plays a large part also. Christian music may be associated with pleasant experiences, often emotional in nature, such as revivals and times of intense group worship. Later, although the religious experience may have been forgotten, the association between the feelings and certain music selections may remain. Thus, someone playing or singing a particular selection may result in tears or less outward expressions of emotions, such as a feeling of worship or praise.

Negative associations are also possible. The Christian may come to associate guilt feelings with certain hymns and invitational selections, due to guilt associated with earlier church experiences. Certain kinds of sermons and pleas for response from an evangelist can arouse guilt feelings (genuine or false guilt), which are associated with the organ or piano playing in the background. Perhaps more likely, specific songs such as "Just as I Am" may be classically conditioned with the response of going forward, either by modeling others making the response or by the individual making numerous such responses. Thus, though the individual may feel close to God and not sense a spiritual need cognitively, he or she may still wrestle with a compulsion to go forward. The compulsion in this case would not be "conviction by God" but rather a conditioned response.

The solution for such negative associations may not involve psychotherapy, but rather require that the person ignore the feelings. Repeated exposure to invitational music without making the response can result in extinction of the feeling and "compulsion." I suspect many have achieved the extinction of such conditioning, yet may have felt less spiritual because of the need to overlook the desire to respond. This is easily misidentified as "resisting the Spirit." From a Christian perspective. the "unlearning" of a response is no less spiritual than the earlier conditioning of that response. The most important issue is the cognitive and behavioral responses required by God, not the responses requested by speakers.

While considering the issue of emotional response to music, the question may be asked if certain music forms predispose one to certain emotional reactions. For example, does a slow hymn tend to result in a sense of awe and reverence? Likewise, does a fast tempo tend to produce feelings of exuberant praise? Due to the subjectiveness of such feelings, and the long-term conditioning undoubtedly behind such forms. it is difficult and perhaps impossible to arrive at a conclusion. The possibility exists that there is no inherent emotional response to a particular music form, although most people's experience would contraindicate such a conclusion. For example, it is difficult for most to consider the possibility that a fast paced rock song would produce feelings of quiet reverence, although some might suggest the possibility that it could produce exuberant praise. Likewise, given consistent conditioning from early childhood, could a slow hymn elicit excitement bordering on the ecstatic? Possibly is the best tentative conclusion. Ira Sankey and D.L. Moody were criticized for songs such as "The Ninety and Nine"; critics were afraid that such songs would soon have "all the people dancing." Today it is hard to imagine people dancing to such tunes, but then we have different kinds of dances than were popular at that time!

One is reminded of the often repeated yarn about Africans becoming aggressive when exposed to rock music, and in contrast being soothed and calmed by semi-classical styles (Larson, 1972). Though the story is loved by anti-rock crusaders, the empirical evidence is at best weak and primary literature of scientific quality is probably non-existent. Assuming that something like the story actually occurred, the responses are probably best explained by prior conditioning of the Africans rather than appeal to inherent biological responses to certain musical forms. Perhaps the strong beat of the rock music was similar to the beat of an enemy tribe or perhaps even their own "call to arms." Other versions of the story have the Africans saying that the music is related to Satan worship or demonic forces, But again, can we assume they were free from prior conditioning? Or free from contamination of the data by the missionaries? Could missionaries have inadvertently signalled a negative response' set by their own negative reactions to the music? The "noble savage" who is free from society's influence does not exist; even those in the bush have learned their associations from prior experiences and they are not necessarily more knowledgeable of Satanic activities. One suspects that a narrow ethnocentrism (if not racism) lies behind such accounts, rather than scientific reliability.


Another facet of Christian music to be considered is the lyrics accompanying specific tunes. Perhaps the analysis of the words of Christian music is less mysterious and elusive. The writer is reminded of a Freudian colleague who once noted the many sensual, even bordering on erotic, terms in Gospel music. A good example of such terminology is the song "He Touched Me," although dozens of such examples could be named. Is an unconscious sublimation of sexuality expressed in such songs?

A more likely explanation is that the feelings associated with affection for others on the human level are easily generalized to God. Thus love for God (a strong biblical concept) is described in terms usually reserved for human expressions of love and affection. One might criticize the lack of cognitive depth of some Gospel music, but rarely if ever does it have explicitly sexual overtones.

While considering possible emotional conditioning of music, I recall a choral conductor who once mentioned a tendency for congregations to give more emotional expressions following songs about heaven. He described the greater likelihood of crying, raising hands, and "Amens" following songs on this topic, particularly among the elderly. Another choral conductor from an entirely different denominational background also noted this effect. Often there was little or no such response until songs about heaven were sung.

One is tempted to assume that the old folks were just longing for "the next land," and perhaps so. But conditioning may also play a part in causing responses that are obviously topic discriminating. Perhaps such individuals learned to discriminate emotional responses according to topic by modeling saints of a former era who also had such reactions. Those of the former era may have conceptualized heaven as a huge negative reinforcer; a means of escape from an uncomfortable, rather aversive present life. Again, we can only conjecture at this point, but apparently some form of stimulus discrimination has occurred.

While discussing the lyrics of music, the topic of lyric/music congruity should be mentioned. Past associations with certain styles of music tend to produce expectations of content, e.g., a military tune is not congruous with lyrics about love. Likewise, certain forms of hard rock would appear to be inconsistent with Christian lyrics. An apt example was an early 1970's combination of a tune called "House of the Rising Sun" (apparently about a house of prostitution) and the lyrics of "Amazing Grace." In the quest for relevancy, the two messages might produce inner tension in the individual.

Yet church music historians are quick to point out that many beloved hymns and songs of the church began as tunes borrowed from taverns. With the addition of Christian lyrics, perhaps past associations are quickly extinguished. Or perhaps the tavern songs were a popular part of the folk heritage at the time, unlike today's secular rock that is oriented away from America's folk heritage. Perhaps popular rock tunes with Christian lyrics might be used for certain limited evangelistic purposes, such as reaching those within the rock culture, but they seem to be most inappropriate for church.

Contemporary Christian Music

Having introduced the topic of rock music and the church, a brief consideration of contemporary Christian music is in order. Considerable hostility has been expressed in some religious groups regarding newer music forms, causing one to question why such reactions occur. An explanation should consider the vast literature about conformity and how groups react to deviancy from a group's norms. Another factor to consider is the association many church people make between liberal theology and modern music forms. While some Christians merely lack positive association with contemporary music forms, many more have received aversive conditioning to contemporary music. Pictures of rock concerts on television, widely publicized accounts of disrespect by rock musicians, and associations with countercultures may arouse powerful feelings of fear and/or hatred that generalize to the music form. Likewise, regular battles between youth and parents-largely arising from the eternal generation conflicts-may perpetuate such conditioned responses.

Conversely, many young people have made altogether different associations with rock music. Peer acceptance and general association with peers, highly valued goals for teens, are regularly paired with rock music played in the background. In addition, such music is associated with the positive emotions felt during dating experiences. The words to many rock songs are conducive to the latter kind of conditioning, as they deal with the topics of love, affection, and sexuality.

Because of such differences in conditioning, it should not be surprising that conflicts between youth and adults occur regarding rock music. Resolving such differences is rarely easy and requires tolerance and understanding by both, goals that may in part be furthered by examining the past conditioning of one another. Adults need to understand the link between positive emotions and rock music among young people, and that this link is not unlike their own conditioning to music forms popular when the adults were young. Likewise, young people need to realize the pervasiveness of past conditioning experiences of adults, as well as the possibility of subliminal influence from the lyrics of rock music.

Social psychology has documented the subliminal influences of stimuli, even though the stimuli are not consciously perceived. For example, in the 1950's phrases such as "eat popcorn" and "drink Coca-Cola" were flashed during movies, which resulted in the increased sales of these items, Additional research found that individuals would respond emotionally, as measured by Galvanic Skin Response, to a word flashed by a tachistoscope, even when the word was flashed too quickly to be recognized (Secord & Backman, 1964).

The possibility of subliminal influence of music has been widely publicized (e.g., Roberts, 1982), and the potential for some such influence is genuine. The most likely subliminal influence is the unconscious or semi-conscious influence of lyrics that are not attended to, such as background music. It is less likely that words that cannot be comprehended due to excessive distortion would influence a person. This is because the subliminal effect exists only when the stimulus is immediately below the threshold of perception; the distortion of rock music is likely to be far from that threshold. Likewise, there is no evidence that suggests "backward masking" (words recorded backwards in a song) can have a subliminal influence (Dobson, 1982).

Introducing New Musical Forms

Introducing new forms of music to a given church group must be accomplished gradually with great care. Whether the goal is to add Bach to a church oriented to Gospel music, or to introduce Phil Keaggy to a conservative congregation, behavioral psychology suggests a common methodology for each. New forms of music should be introduced by means of shaping, followed by reinforcement. This involves breaking the change down into small steps, and gradually introducing approximations to the end goal. This would probably occur over several months or even years. For example, a very brief classical piece might be included in Sunday morning worship occasionally, followed by gradually increasing the length of time given to classical forms. If introducing contemporary music, one might begin with an occasional modern piece performed without drums and perhaps with less rhythm. Later, additional facets of contemporary music might be gradually added. It is most important that during each step of the shaping process, innovations be followed by reinforcement via familiar accepted styles, preferably by the same musicians. In some cases, direct praise for acceptance of the different style may act as a reinforcer. Helping a congregation in studying the different music form can be helpful, making the change cognitive rather than emotional. During the shaping process, the church group will also be desensitized to the new music. In contrast, an abrupt change such as a complete service of classical music or bringing in a hard rock group will probably alienate and make the potential for change much less.

Another consideration of Christian music from a psychological perspective is that of objectives. Behavioral psychology has particularly been concerned with demonstrable outcomes as the result of teaching, usually described in terms of observable behavior. Christian musicians need to ask themselves why they perform music, and specifically what they wish to accomplish.

Don Hustad (1981) approaches this issue by suggesting that church music is a functional art. Among the purposes of church music, says Hustad, are: (1) enjoyment, (2) expression of emotion, (3) persuasion ("ethos"), (4) expression of God, and (5) reinforcement of evangelical church life. Stating such broad purposes as objectives involves specifying a particular behavior or attitude to be changed in a given context, such as additional evangelism by church members or spending more time in prayer, both of which fall under Hustad's third purpose. Dozens of objectives could be developed from the general purposes listed. Regardless of the objective, it is crucial that some measurement of effectiveness be made, otherwise musical efforts may be ineffective or even contradict the goals intended. Objectives of a musical performance need to be considered carefully, and some means of measurement should be used at least occasionally to determine if objectives are being met.

Perhaps through the psychological analysis of music we can begin to understand why different individuals find various styles of Christian music interesting, exciting, boring, or revolting. We need to ask whether conditioning adequately accounts for responses to music, or whether there is an intrinsic response to music forms. Also, to what extent does music go beyond emotions and affect personality and will?

Is Psychological Assessment of Christian Music Threatening?

Some might feel threatened by the assessment of psychological factors in Christian music. If music can be fully understood in terms of conditioning (or other psychological theories), does this negate the spiritual impact? MacKay (1979) has suggested different levels of understanding phenomena and that a complete analysis at any one level does not preclude explanation at another level. In other words, even if psychological theory can account for all behavioral and emotional reactions to music, such does not rule out another level of analysis, such as the spiritual or theological level. Even if the powerful impact of music could be fully explained by conditioning, we still would have a worthy medium for the Gospel. One might consider the similarity of music, in this respect, to an automobile. A mechanical understanding of how an automobile functions in no way limits it as a resource that Christians may use, even for promoting the Gospel message. Likewise, music exhaustively understood from a psychological viewpoint (if this ever occurs) is still a worthy medium for the Gospel message. There will always remain the mystery of how the Holy Spirit can empower the product of the human vocal apparatus-in speech or song-and use it to produce conviction, salvation, or growth. The spiritual transcends the mechanical.

This survey of Christian music from a psychological view is at best preliminary. These and other aspects of music need to be explored for possible relationships that will aid a fuller understanding of an important art form. This area is also in need of careful research to explore the interface between music, the church, and psychology. Hopefully, this essay will act as a catalyst for further study in this most interesting field.


Dobson, James. "Focus on the Family" (radio program), October 12,1982.

Hoult, Thomas. Sociology for a New Day, 2Dd. ed. New York: Random House, 1979.

Hustad, Donald. Jubilate.'. Church Music in the Evangelical Tradition. Carol Stream, Ill.: Hope Publishing Co., 1981.

Larson, Bob. The Day the Music Died. Carol Stream, 111, Creation House, 1972.

MacKay, Donald. Human Science and Human Dignity. Downers Grove, Ill: Inter-Varsit% Press. 1979,

Roberts- Dennis. "Rock Music: Stairway to Heaven or Highway to Hefl?". Aloody Monthly. September, 1982.

Secord, Paul. and Backman. Carl. Social Psychology. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Compam. 196-4.