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Over the Edge: The Power of Music

By Eric Holmberg
Published January 6, 2008

Rock ‘n’ Roll! Powered by space-age technology and popularized by the largest, wealthiest and most leisure generation of young people in history, rock music has changed the modern world in ways more profound than perhaps any other social phenomenon. Evidence of its impact are many and varied.

Rock has become a multi-billion dollar industry, one recently described by the National Review as “the most prosperous industry in the world.“1 Its superstars have annual incomes that easily eclipse those of all but a handful of the most successful industrialists and businessmen.

And the music is virtually everywhere – from packed sports arenas to commercials that peddle everything from tennis shoes to alcohol – from the sound tracks of movies and television series to the pulsing rhythms that reverberate in our health spas. Everything today seems to march to its rhythm.

Perhaps the only thing more notable than rock’s pervasiveness is the manner in which it helps shape the hearts and minds of the world’s youth. As Dr. David Elkind noted in his book The Hurried Child, one of the most underestimated influences on young people today is the music industry.2

Citing again the National Review: “Rock’s sheer pervasiveness makes it the most profound value shaper in existence today. Unless you are deaf it is virtually guaranteed that rock music has affected your view of the world.“3

From the manner in which young people dress to the way they view and understand the key issues of life, little escapes the pale cast by rock’s big sound.

And it’s no wonder. Young people wake up to it, drive to it, play to it, study to it, and go to sleep to it. Studies show that between the 7th and 12th grades, the average teenager will listen to and watch 11,000 hours of rock music and rock videos – more than twice the time they will spend in class.4

As Dr. Alan Bloom noted in his best-selling book, The Closing of the American Mind, “Nothing is more singular about this generation than its addiction to music.“5

Incredibly, despite this unprecedented power and the mounting evidence that rock’s influence can be less than positive, most people have never stopped to consider what is really going on in and through contemporary music. Why is music so powerful? How does it affect us? What is its source? And to where is it leading us?

Throughout the ages, wise men have noted music’s profound impact on its listeners. For example, over 2,000 years before the birth of Christ, the musical systems of China were both highly developed and central to its society. It was to this that the philosophers directed much of their attention. Understanding its intrinsic power, they carefully checked their music to make sure that it conveyed eternal truths and could thus influence man’s character for the better.6

To this end, tradition states that one emperor, by the name of Shun, would monitor the health of each of the provinces of this vast kingdom by simply examining the music they produced. Course and sensual sounds indicated a sick society, one in need of his intervention and assistance.7

Two thousand years later the Greek philosopher, Plato, echoed the sentiments of Emperor Shun when he said, “When modes of music change the fundamental laws of the state change with them.“8

In his famous work Laws, Plato could have been writing about our modern age when he stated: “Through foolishness they, the people, deceived themselves into thinking that there was no right or wrong in music – that it was to be judged good or bad by the pleasure it gave…. As it was, the criterion was not music but a reputation for promiscuous cleverness and a spirit of law-breaking.“9

Plato’s contemporary, Aristotle, noting that music has “the power to form character,“10 wanted to see it actually regulated by the state – an approach, by the way, of which I am not in favor.

Moving up to the present century, Vladimir Lenin, the co-founder of communism and one of history’s greatest experts on subversion and revolution said, “One quick way to destroy a society is through its music.“11

Changing laws, forming character, and toppling societies – most of us are not used to talking about music in such expansive terms. To understand this magnitude of impact we must consider both the nature of music and man; and how music affects us in body, soul, and spirit.

Given the materialistic philosophy that marks this present age, it’s surprising that more attention has not been given to the many profound ways sound and different musical forms can affect the physical world. For example, research has found that shrill sounds of sufficient volume can congeal proteins in a liquid media. So a soft egg placed in front of a speaker at some of the louder rock concerts – can midway through the concert become a hard-boiled snack for the weary head-banger.12

Moving from proteins to animate objects, repeated experiments have shown that plants respond positively to classical forms of music, actually growing and flowering faster than if there was no music at all. Conversely, more dissident forms of music, like heavy metal, can actually retard growth and even kill the plant.13

Of course, humans are much more complex than plants, but it still makes one wonder what this type of music might be doing to us. As Dr. Adam Knieste, a musicologist who studies the effects of music upon people noted: “It’s really a powerful drug. Music can poison you, lift your spirits, or make you sick without knowing why.“14

As mathematics is the universal language of the mind, music is the language of the heart, what the great composer Robert Schumann called “the perfect expression of the soul.” Biblically, when we talk about the soul, we are speaking of the human personality and its three component parts – the mind, the will and the emotions. And it’s here where we begin to see music’s real power take hold.

In the realm of the mind, there is mounting evidence that certain kinds of rock have a negative effect on one’s ability to think and learn. Studies at two separate universities, for example, have found that rats have a much more difficult time learning to pass through a maze if they are subjected to hard-rock music.15

On the emotional level, few would deny music’s power. Its ability to influence and enhance moods is, in fact, one of music’s greatest attractions. What most people are not aware of, however, is both the extent of this influence and the ease with which they can be unconsciously manipulated. As Eddie Manson, Oscar-winning composer and one-time president of the American Society of Music Arrangers has said, “We manipulate people like crazy … Every film composer mixes his experiences with a talent for musical manipulation, and then projects that Machiavellian power gut to gut.“16

Moving from the gut to the brain, music is also a powerful “encoder,” a term in psychology for something that helps determine the way we perceive and think about the world. In other words, music has an inside track to the subconscious levels of our minds.17 This truth is even physically suggested by the fact that the auditory nerves are the most predominant of all the human senses.18

Research done at Stanford University confirms not only this predominance at a physical and subconscious level, but also in an area that is perhaps the most uniquely human of all; that is in the area of transcendent experiences – what the researchers term “thrills.” They found that the most powerful stimulus for evoking thrill-like sensations in their subjects was music.19

Musicologist David Tame anticipates Stanford’s discovery when he wrote: “Music is the language of languages. It can be said that of all the arts, there is none that more powerfully moves and changes the consciousness.“20

Changing one’s consciousness is what David Crosby meant when he told Rolling Stone that through just his music he could alter his audience’s value systems and, in effect, steal them away from their parents.21

And Crosby is not alone. Perhaps rock’s greatest genius, Jimi Hendrix, told Life magazine in 1969, “I can explain everything better though music. You hypnotize people to where they go right back to their natural state, and when you get people at their weakest point, you can preach into their subconscious what we want to say.“22

In recognition of this transcendent power Eddie Manson went on to share a sober warning, “Music is used everywhere to condition the human mind. It can be just as powerful as a drug and much more dangerous, because nobody takes musical manipulation very seriously.“23

As we just saw in the quote by Jimi Hendrix, music is a spiritual thing. And it is in this realm of the spirit where we will focus most of our attention because it is here where music reaches its greatest heights of power and influence.

Even the very word “music” suggests this spiritual dimension. Its root word “muse” were the spirit beings who the ancient Greeks felt were responsible for the inspiration of all art.

Today, it’s not just the Greeks who feel that artists are inspired by spiritual forces. Folk jazz artist Joni Mitchell, in an interview with Time magazine, was described as follows: “Joni Mitchell’s own strongest creative impulses come to her in a somewhat unusual way. She deeply believes in a male muse named Art who lends her his key to what she airily calls the ‘Shrine of Creativity.’“24

Avant-garde musician Peter Rowan echoes this description when in an interview with the Washington Times he said, “I do believe that music itself is a spiritual force. The inspiration I feel is like a holy thing. It’s beyond any words I can use to describe it.“25

This perception takes on an more even more startling dimension when described by guitarist John McGlaughlin, “One night we were playing and suddenly the spirit entered into me and I was playing but it was no longer me playing.“26

We see this perception mirrored in these words by AC/DC guitarist, Angus Young, “Someone else is steering me. I’m just along for the ride. I become possessed when I’m on stage.“27

To fully comprehend both the nature and magnitude of the spiritual interrelationship between man and music, we must first understand something of the basic realities that attend the spiritual world.

1. The real reality is a spiritual one. One of the scripture’s primary messages is that the time/space world we live in is a created one, having its origins in an eternal, spiritual realm that exists outside the scope of our physical senses. In John’s gospel, Jesus tells us that God is Spirit (John 4:24a) – and it is this inexpressibly wise, loving and all powerful Spirit Who is the creator of all things. His is the transcendent reality.

2. Man is a spiritual being. Though, as we have noted, we live in a body and have a soul, we are first and foremost spiritual beings. Genesis 1:27 gives the account of the origins of man, “So God created man in His own likeness.” In other words, Spirit begat spirit. From the breath of God that gave us life – to His image indelibly impressed upon our hearts, you and I are spirits. And as spirits, we are profoundly affected by the principles and the personalities that make up the spiritual world, whether we are aware of them or not.

3. As God’s offspring, the primary purpose for our existence is to know and experience God. In John 17:3 Jesus said, “This is eternal life – to know God and the Savior Whom He has sent.” Continuing with the passage of scripture we read earlier – “The Father is looking for those who will worship Him in spirit and in truth” (John 4:24b). The worship spoken of here is not some dry, religious exercise, but the natural response to knowing and experiencing God. And biblically and scientifically, there is no more profound way to be drawn into and then express this experience than through music. As perhaps the greatest musician in history, Johann Sebastian Bach said, “The end of all music should be the glory of God and the refreshment of the human spirit.”

4. Through sin man fell and was separated from God. Throughout the scriptures the words of God in Ezekiel are echoed again and again, “The soul who sins will die” (Ezekiel 18:4).

The death spoken of here manifests itself in several ways, but most significantly in a spiritual sense as through our sin we are separated from the God of all life. Left stranded, subjected to the tyranny of our selfishness and lust, we are no longer citizens of God’s kingdom but instead walk “according to the way of this fallen world, according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit who works in all who are disobedient” (Ephesians 2:2). Into this hopeless situation, God sent a Savior, His own Son, to pay the penalty for our sins, to destroy the power of this “prince of the air” and to bring man back into His kingdom (John 3:16; John 10:10; Heb. 2:14).

5. The kingdom of darkness is real and is the spiritual source of all opposition to God. The lord of this diabolical kingdom is the “prince of the air,” more commonly known as Satan, or the devil. With a hoard of wicked spirits at his command, he is called the “god of this fallen worl” (2 Cor. 4:4).

As this world’s ruler, his task is essentially two-fold. First, to stimulate the variety of lusts resident within the human heart, thereby degrading people as well as bringing them into greater bondage and control – “For by what a man is overcome, by this he is enslaved” (2 Peter 2:19). Second, to oppose all of God’s efforts to redeem man and thus steal away Satan’s subjects. The battlefield here is primarily the human mind. Using a variety of techniques, Satan’s strategy is to fill us with lies, to convince us that black is white and evil good, to justify sin and blind us to our need for a savior, to distort our image of God and erase or trivialize our image of Satan, convincing us that he either doesn’t exist or that he’s a cartoon imp in red pajamas. Put simply: “To blind the minds of the unbelieving so that they cannot see the light of Christ who is the image of God” (2 Cor. 4:4).

Given its power over the heart of man, music is among the most potent of these techniques. And it’s worth noting that both the scriptures and church tradition suggest that music comes quite naturally to Satan, that very possibly, before his fall, he was in charge of music in heaven.28

Of course, any style of music can be perverted by evil. Many of the elements this presentation examines are found in other musical forms as well. The reason for our focus on rock is both its unparalleled popularity and the manner in which it has given place to evil. Suddenly at first and then with increasing blatancy as rock’s celebrants have been brought under its rhythmic sway, it has become one of the most potent weapons in Satan’s arsenal of deception.

Fortunately, Satan’s proven tendency for over-achieving has resulted in a blatancy that, when examined by an objective inquirer, can be used to expose the devil’s presence and purposes – hence this presentation. And one last point before we begin to dust rock music for Satan’s fingerprints – 2 Corinthians tells us that “the devil can disguise himself as an angel of light” (2 Cor. 11:14) – that he can, in other words, appear as something beautiful, even Christ-like. Don’t be fooled! Satan doesn’t just manifest his power through a Hitler or a Manson. He can use your favorite guitarist, a pretty pop singer, maybe even you. Anyone who resists the will of God is fertile soil for his seeds of deception.

1 National Review, February 24, 1989, p.28.
2 The Hurried Child (Addison Wesley Publishing Company, 1988) pp.89 -93.
3 National Review, February 24, 1989, p.28.
4 American Academy of Pediatrics.
5 Dr. Alan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind (Simon and Schuster, 1987) p.68.
6 David Tame, The Secret Power of Music (Destiny Books, 1984) p.34.
7 Ibid, pp.13,14.
8 Plato, The Republic, Book 3.
9 Tame, p.189.
10 Tame, p.19.
11 The Marxist Minstrels: A Handbook on Communist Subversion of Music, American Christian College Press, 1974.
12 Bob Larson, The Day Music Died (Bob Larson Ministries) 1973.
13 Tame, p.143.
14 David Chagall, Family Weekly Magazine, January 30, 1983, p.12.
15 Insight, April 27, 1987, p.57.
16 Chagall, p.15.
17 Tame, pp.148-150.
18 Ibid, p.136.
19 Avram Goldstein, Physiological Psychology, 1980, Vol 8 (1), 126-129.
20 Tame, p.151.
21 Arthur Barker, The Rolling Stone Interviews, 1981.
22 Life, October 3, 1969, p.4.
23 Chagall, p.15.
24 Time, December 16, 1974, p.39.
25 Washington Times, March 7, 1986.
26 Circus, April, 1972, p.38.
27 Hit Parader, 1985.
28 This is based upon the popular exegesis of Isaiah 14 (esp. vs. 11) and Ezekiel 28 (esp. vs. 13 in KJV) that views the “King of Babylon” and the “Ruler of Tyre” as types of Satan before and after his fall from heaven.


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