Music: The Forgotten Language of the Heart

James F. Stoddard III

I believe that every feeling, every emotion that can be felt by man, can be expressed through music. Can it be that while we have been immersed in this medium, we have been seduced and distracted to forget its power for good or evil?

My story with music begins when I was very young.  This was the age long before CDs or MP3 players.  This was the age of the radio and a few cassettes.  About age seven or eight,  I can remember feeling strongly that the spirit accompanying the popular music of the day (the late 70s, early 80s) was corrupt.  I am not referring to the words or lyrics, but the music itself.  I could sense that the pop songs played on the radio were dangerous–some dark, others irreverent and still others anxious.

As I grew older, the near universal sentiment was opposed to such notions.  Teachers and religious leaders often promoted the music and were strongly in favor of such entertainment.  To a young child, and later to a young adult, this was utterly confusing. I would like to reiterate that these impressions were NOT connected with the lyrics of these popular tunes.  This inspiration was warning me of a more subtle communicator: the beat, rhythm and other dynamics of the composition itself. This perplexity, almost smothered, continued in the back of my mind until I returned home from my mission in 1991.  Having a very inquiring mind, and some strong promptings, I took my questions back off the shelf and began searching for answers.  I wanted to know if the leadership of the Church had spoken on this subject and if they had, what had they said?  Thus began an extraordinary journey.

“Issues with Answers”

Being an extremely poor college student, I was looking through the religious and prophetically oriented books at Deseret Industries and I happened to see a CES Church manual, “Living Prophets for a Living Church”, 1974.  Thumbing through, I found a section titled “Issues with Answers”.  Skimming quickly I noticed matter of fact statements about the civil rights movement, working mothers, birth control, socialism, overpopulation, sex education, and finally music and dance. Among my first discoveries was President David O. McKay’s advice to BYU students: no “electronic bands” and no “loud beat”.

A feeling of the brethren on dancing for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has been received in a letter to a BYU student from President David O. McKay. President McKay said in his letter that one copy had been sent to President Ernest L. Wilkinson [President of BYU] and authorized Miss Chandler to show it ‘to anyone you desire.’ ‘I am answering your letter because it raises a question on which I desire all youth of the Church to know my views.’  THE DAILY UNIVERSE received permission from Miss Chandler to print the letter in its entirety, so that all BYU students will know how the President of the Church feels about the dance issue. ‘THE STANDARDS of acceptable dancing for the young men and women of our Church are being set forth in a revised booklet entitled ‘For the Strength of the Youth.’ [not the current For the Strength of Youth manual] This little booklet, as soon as it comes off the press, will contain the statement which I am enclosing herewith. I note you say that you enjoy what you characterize as ‘stomp dances,’ [the fast dance of the 1970s and 1980s that became popular at stake dances in my generation, as opposed to the waltz or two-step] but you are willing to follow my counsel no matter what the answer. I congratulate you on this attitude. You also say that many people have no evil intentions in dancing these dances. May I give you the following guidelines in reply:

1. THE ENCLOSED statement of acceptable dancing states that if one concentrates on good dance posture, many dances can be danced in a manner which will meet LDS standards. Examples of these dances are the waltz, the fox trot, tango, rhumba, cha-cha, samba, and the swing, and most of the folk dances, for which the Brigham Young University has a very wholesome and fine reputation. The seven dances which I have enumerated have all been approved by the General Boards of the Mutual Improvement Associations. This should provide a sufficient variety of dances to enable the youth of Zion to have a good time.

2. YOU ENCLOSED with your letter a photograph appearing in the Daily Universe of an off-campus ‘stomp’ dance. I do not believe that those photographed in that picture are concentrating on good posture. Indeed, I doubt whether it is possible to dance most of the prevalent fad dances in a manner that will meet LDS standards, and I know that is why President Wilkinson, who has the complete support of the Board of Trustees, criticized certain dances in his address to the student body. The standards which he outlined for BYU are standards approved by the General Authorities.

3. I admit that many of the young people of our Church do not have any evil intentions in dancing certain current fad dances. However, we do not think the test of a proper dance is whether the dancers have evil intentions, but whether the dance is of such dignity and propriety that, even to an onlooker, it suggests nothing but style and good grace. AFTER ALL, young men and women of our Church should shun even the appearance of evil, and that is why we would very much prefer that you and others avoid the current trend of what, to many of us, appears to be vulgar dancing [the dancing that became the standard in my era]. There are too many fine things in this world for the young people to engage in without resorting to dances that are questionable.

4. You inquired as to what is wrong with electronic bands. I am informed that moderate and modest music can be played by electronic bands, but I also understand that most electronic bands have a very loud beat which is inconsistent with the standards we desire to have observed; also, that in some places, two bands are employed because the traditional band or orchestra is not satisfactory for the wild and loud beat necessary for certain fad dances. That is why, in general, electronic bands are not approved.

‘I HOPE THAT you and your friends will follow my advice by dancing in accordance with the standards. You will find that when you accept those standards [these standards were rejected and forgotten by my day] you will get much more joy and wholesome satisfaction than you do from the questionable dancing engaged in by many [nearly everyone since then], and you will not be in an atmosphere where there is smoking or drinking as described by you in one of the places where you dance.’

David O. McKay, as printed in the “Daily Universe,” Dec. 3 1965, pp. 1-2; and “Living Prophets for a Living Church,” Church Educational System college student manual, 1974, emphasis added.

As I began to study, I realized that the timing of President McKay’s statements coincided with my own parent’s association with BYU.  I approached my Mother to discover a forgotten history of music standards as advised by the Church.  My Mother explained that she had grown up with a very different style of music.  Again, we were discussing music, NOT LYRICS.  As time progressed through the 50s, the 60s, and then the 70s and 80s, the music became harder and harder and louder and louder.  President David O. McKay and President Ernest L. Wilkinson, BYU President from 1951-1971, were adamantly opposed to introducing this new popular music and dancing onto the campus.  The BYU student body of that time, unfortunately, did not follow the counsel.  Because the generations preceding my own had rejected the counsel of the Prophet in regard to rock music, my generation never had the chance to be taught a higher standard.  I felt like the prophet Josiah when he first discovered the forgotten Book of the Law. My disappointment in having never heard this narrative before was keen.  Such advice and instruction could have benefited my early life, but I was now determined that even if I stood alone, I would stand.  After pouring through my personal music collection, albums nearly everyone would have considered extremely tame, I discarded the majority.  I struggled to develop a taste for a higher standard of music; a taste for compositions that were more pure and holy.  Bit by bit and piece by piece, I began to understand more clearly why the Presidents of the Church had given their counsel. This set me on a crusade.  I poured through the teachings of the Presidents of the Church, and before long my understanding of music was revolutionized.  Here is a sampling:

President Benson

Have you been listening to the music that many young folks are hearing today? Some of it is nerve-jamming in nature and much of it has been deliberately designed to promote revolution, dope, immorality, and a gap between parent and child. And some of this music has invaded our Church cultural halls.Have you noticed some of our Church dances lately? Have they been praiseworthy, lovely, and of good report? (Article of Faith 13)  “I doubt,” said President David O. McKay, “whether it is possible to dance most of the prevalent fad dances in a manner to meet LDS standards.”1

Youth leaders, are you holding aloft our standards, or have you compromised them for the lowest common denominator in order to appease the deceived or vile within the Church? Are the dances and music in your cultural halls virtuous, lovely, praiseworthy, and of good report, or do they represent a modern Sodom with short skirts, loud, beat, strobe lights, and darkness? . . . Have we, as Moroni warned, “polluted the holy church of God”?  The auxiliaries of the Church are to be a help, not a hindrance, to parents and the priesthood as they strive to lead their families back to God. . . .Today because some parents have refused to become informed and then stand up and inform their children, they are witnessing the gradual physical and spiritual destruction of their posterity. If we would become like God, knowing good and evil, then we had best find out what is undermining us, how to avoid it, and what we can do about it.2

President Packer

In our day music itself has been corrupted. Music can, by its tempo, by its beat, by its intensity, dull the spiritual sensitivity of men. . . .

One of the signs of apostasy in the Christian churches today is the willingness of their ministers to compromise and introduce into what had been, theretofore, the most sacred religious meetings the music of the drug and the hard rock culture. Such music has little virtue and it is repellent to the Spirit of God. . . .

Someone said recently that no music could be degrading, that music in and of itself is harmless and innocent.

If that be true, then there should be some explanation for circumstances where local leaders have provided a building—expansive, light, and inviting—and have assembled a party of young people dressed modestly, well-groomed, with manners to match. Then overamplified sounds of hard music are introduced and an influence pours into the room that is repellent to the Spirit of God.

. . . we have not given sufficient counsel and attention, I think, to the music that our young people consume. And “consume” is a proper word. . . .

. . . the breach between the world and the extremes of its music and the Church is wider in our day than ever in generations past.3

President Harold B. Lee

At the same time music can be prostituted to Satan’s purposes. Napoleon is quoted as having said, “Music of all the liberal arts has the greatest influence over the passions and is that which the legislator ought to give the greatest encouragement.” May I paraphrase and say, “Music in the Church of Jesus Christ is that to which every leader of youth should give his greatest concern to see that the wrong kinds of passions are not aroused by our introduction of sensuous music into our youth programs.4 

We’re winged for heavenly flight. Have you ever gone out to a bonfire party late at night? As you build the bonfire you see moths come winging in around the fire, and if they get too close they fall singed to their death, or if they’re able to fly away they’re maimed forever after. That’s exactly what you have in life. The hellholes of Satan are always made very attractive. [They feature] enticing music of the kind that appeals to the lower senses. Now, there may be good rock music—I don’t know what it is—but there’s damnable rock music that appeals to the lower senses of man, where the offbeat [rock beat] is just as vile and abrasive to human thought as it can be. We say it to you, we plead with you to listen to the beautiful things, if you want to be on the right side. But be careful you don’t choose the wrong things; you shun those things just as the moths should have shunned the white fire.5

President Spencer W. Kimball

Musical sounds can be put together in such a way that they can express feelings-from the most profoundly exalted to the most abjectly vulgar. Or rather, these musical sounds induce in the listener feelings which he responds to, and the response he makes to these sounds has been called a “gesture of the spirit.” Thus, music can act upon our senses to produce or induce feelings of reverence, humility, fervor, assurance, or other feelings attuned to the spirit of worship.6

Note: For an exhaustive list of statements made by the LDS Church leadership please see the Joseph Smith Foundation Music & Dance FAQs.

As has been the case with the advice of the Brethren on politics7, education8, birth-control9 and science10, the majority of the student body and faculty of BYU from time to time has opposed the advice and teachings of the Prophets of God. As I avoided these modern forms of music, I began to understand, I began to more clearly see that music imitated emotion or feeling.  Before long I recognized that hard rock generally imitated feelings of anger or frustration in varying degrees. As I did not desire to be consumed in animosity, it was an easy decision to steer clear of that genre (I had never liked it).  Soon thereafter, “pop rock” also became unmasked and I began to see imitations of pride and arrogance.   In other words, the music, not the words but the music itself, imitates or expresses or conveys feelings of pride and arrogance.  Modern music also has a near universal influence on the mind and the body to “just be free to do what it feels like”.

There was, however, one genre that still remained a mystery to me. Elder Gene R. Cook made the following comment in regard to the standard for music in his own home.  “We determined to maintain our family music standard of Church music, classical music, or other good general music, but no light or hard rock or anything like unto it.”11  I could understand the danger of hard rock, imitating anger or contention or anxiety, but what threat did light or soft rock have?  What could be the problem with a very light rock beat in the background?  Or what could be wrong with light music with no rock beat (off beat) at all?  Though I did not understand it at the time, I knew I should follow the counsel.  Years later, the lights went on, I had an epiphany of sorts.  Music communicates emotion, feeling.  Hard rock generally conveys anger, pop rock relays pride and arrogance but soft rock was sinister as it imitated feelings of lust or looseness and letting go. I realized more and more that all rock music, soft, pop, hard, etc. promoted the natural man to a greater or lesser degree.  Was this music the adversary’s counterfeit to spiritual communication with the heart?

D&C 8:2 — The Mind and Heart

God communicates with His children in two ways according to scripture.  When the Lord taught Oliver Cowdery how to receive revelation, he was perfectly instructed:

I will tell you in your mind and in your heart, by the Holy Ghost, which shall come upon you and which shall dwell in your heart.

D&C 8:2

We should ask ourselves, what is the language of the mind?  With some reflection, it becomes apparent that the conveying medium of the mind is words.  For many of us, English is the medium we use to describe the workings of the mind or that we employ to impart intellectual concepts.  All written and spoken languages, mathematics, computer languages, etc. could be considered languages of the mind. This begs the question, what then is the language of the heart? What is the heart?  The heart is feeling and emotion.  Webster’s 1828 Dictionary defines the heart as “the seat of the affections and passions.”

Elder Gene R. Cook once recounted a conversation he had with rock super-star Mick Jagger.  During the conversation, Jagger admitted.  “Our music is calculated to drive the kids to sex.”  Elder Cook remembered: “He [Mick Jagger] told me the importance, in his view, of freeing up the youth. He felt that they ought to be able to do whatever they wanted in spite of their parents. He said that parents were inhibiting them too much and controlling things and they ought not to be doing that. It was truly astounding to me. He told me that he was thankful the family, as an entity, was being destroyed. And I gathered from what he was saying that he was doing his best to help that along.”

This story only confirmed what I had already been feeling.  The lyrics were powerful, yes.  But the more subtle foe, the enemy more dangerous because it had not been fully recognized, was the corruption of the music itself.  I believe that every feeling, every emotion that can be felt by man, can be expressed through music.  This is true for every good and righteous emotion, but it is equally true for every sinful emotion and feeling.  Music is not amoral any more than language is amoral.  Music is the language of the heart.  I began to see, to some degree, the true power of music.  It can raise one to the highest heaven or sink one to the lowest hell.

How do we share emotion?  How do we describe the affections of the heart?  The most effective medium we have is music.  Poetry is a mix of the mind and the heart, the blending of rhythm with words.  The majority of our songs are a blend of poetic language with music.  In other words, it is a blend of the heart and the mind.  Music, however, is solely the language of the heart.

It is often argued that music is amoral.  “All music is good!  It is a matter of your individual taste or preference.  It varies by personality.”  Common sense dictates otherwise, and the words of our inspired prophets agree. Ezra Taft Benson re-stated the following in October 1971:

A letter from a concerned father about the evil effects of some popular music is one of many. I quote from this well-informed teacher of youth: ‘Music creates atmosphere. Atmosphere creates environment. Environment influences behavior. What are the mechanics of this process?

Rhythm is the most physical element in music. It is the only element in music that can exist in bodily movement without benefit of sound. A mind dulled by drugs or alcohol can still respond to the beat.

Loudness adds to muddling the mind. Sound magnified to the threshold of pain is of such physical violence as to block the higher processes of thought and reason. (And turning down the volume of this destructive music does not remove the other evils.) . . .

Repetition to the extreme is another primitive rock device. . . .

Gyrations, a twin to rock rhythm, are such that even clean hands and a pure heart cannot misinterpret their insinuations . . .

Darkness [and dimmed lights] is another facet of the rock scene. It is a black mass that deadens the conscience in a mask of anonymity. Identity lost in darkness shrinks from the normal feelings of responsibility.

Strobe lights split the darkness in blinding shafts that reduce resistance like the lights of an interrogator’s third degree or the swinging pendulum of the hypnotist who would control your behavior. . . .

The whole psychedelic design [this father continues] is a swinging door to drugs, sex, rebellion, and Godlessness. Combined with the screaming obscenities of the lyrics, this mesmerizing music has borne the fruit of filth. Leaders of the rock society readily proclaim their degeneracy.

And the most diabolical deceit of this infamy is that it denies evil to be an absolute. Our religion is one of absolutes and cannot be rationalized into a relativistic philosophy of the ‘liberal Mormons.’ We cannot safely rationalize away righteousness.

What could be more misguided than fear that ‘if rock music were not endorsed by our leaders, we may lose many young people.’ (MIA music committee.) [Note that Elder Benson here corrects or chastises the leaders of one of the general auxiliaries of the Church]  Even now we are losing them to the songs of Satan, drugs, sex, riot, and apostasy. We could be well reminded by a message from the Mormon Miracle pageant: ‘Moroni knew that you cannot compromise with evil. If you do, evil always wins.’ (Richard Nibley, excerpts from letter.) . . .

And now a music scholar points to ‘a new direction in the rock-drug culture [which is] hailed by many ministers and the music industry as a silver lining in the clouds of gold. Religious rock is climbing up the ‘Top Ten’ charts. The growing resistance to the rock-drug scene is being diverted by this wholesome-appearing retreat from the new morality. But a review of religious rock materials unmasks an insidiously disguised anti-Christ. By reducing revealed religion to mythology, rock assumes the mantle of righteousness while rejecting the reality of sin. Without sin the new morality can continue in its Godless revel behind the pretense of religious robes. By reversing the roles of Jesus and Judas, one fast-selling album fits perfectly the warning of Isaiah [Isa. 5:20]: ‘Woe unto them that call evil good, and good evil; that put darkness for light, and light for darkness.’ (Richard Nibley.)12

Why then do we find music that clearly violates the instruction of the leadership of the Church permeating nearly every part of our current Church activities and programs?  Many have asked this question and been troubled by the irony.  Thankfully, President Ezra Taft Benson, who I am sure struggled with this issue himself, gave this timeless counsel.

Sometimes, from behind the pulpit, in our classrooms, in our council meetings, and in our Church publications, we hear, read, or witness things that do not square with the truth. . . . Now, do not let this serve as an excuse for your own wrongdoing. The Lord is letting the wheat and the tares mature before He fully purges the Church. He is also testing you to see if you will be misled. The devil is trying to deceive the very elect. Let me give you a crucial key to help you avoid being deceived. It is this-learn to keep your eye on the prophet. He is the Lord’s mouthpiece and the only man who can speak for the Lord today. Let his inspired counsel take precedence. Let his inspired words be a basis for evaluating the counsel of all lesser authorities. Then live close to the Spirit so you may know the truth of all things. 13

The words of our inspired prophets are clear.  Music is not amoral.  There is good music and there is bad music.  Many of the musical elements we have come to accept and embrace, such as the off beat (otherwise known as the back beat or rock beat), repetition, gyrations, loudness, etc.) are destructive.  These compromises are a leading cause in the loss of a chosen generation of youth.  Why?  Music is the language of the heart with an ability to communicate every emotion of which we are capable.

  1. Ezra Taft Benson, The Teachings of Ezra Taft Benson (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1988), 325.
  2. Ezra Taft Benson, God, Family, Country: Our Three Great Loyalties (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1974), 229.
  3. Boyd K. Packer, “Inspiring Music–Worthy Thoughts,” Ensign, October 1973.
  4. Harold B. Lee, The Teachings of Harold B. Lee, ed. by Clyde J. Williams (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1996), 203.
  5. Ibid., 104.
  6. Spencer W. Kimball, The Teachings of Spencer W. Kimball, ed. by Edward L. Kimball (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1982), 519.
  7. Government FAQs
  8. Traditions of Scholarship that Shape the Foundations of Education and the Nature of the University,” by Neil J. Flinders.
  9. See the Joseph Smith Foundation Home & Family FAQs: “01) BIRTH-CONTROL: What is the first commandment ever given by the Lord to man? How does the Lord feel about birth control? Should couples postpone having children?
  10. See the Joseph Smith Foundation Science FAQS: “13) 3 BYU PROFESSORS: Why did President Joseph F. Smith dismiss three professors from Brigham Young University for teaching organic evolution?
  11. Gene R. Cook, Raising Up a Family to the Lord (Deseret Book, 1993), 157.
  12. Satan’s Thrust – Youth,” President Ezra Taft Benson, Ensign, December 1971.
  13. Ezra Taft Benson, Teachings of Ezra Taft Benson (Bookcraft, 1988), 134; Ezra Taft Benson, An Enemy Hath Done This (Parliament Publishers, 1969), 317.
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