How Chemistry Illumines the Debate about the Morality of Music without Words

January 7, 2013

God’s universe is composed of many different elements, many of which occur naturally in various elemental forms as well as in combinations with many other elements to form compounds, mixtures, etc. A comparison of differences among various chemical substances provides a valuable analogy that pertains to the debate about the morality of music without words.

Oxygen in its diatomic molecular form (O2) is necessary for human life. Molecules that contain three oxygen atoms, however, form a powerfully toxic substance, ozone. The same element thus forms two different molecules that have radically differing effects on humans.

Carbon and oxygen combine to form two different compounds, carbon monoxide (CO), which is poisonous, and carbon dioxide (CO2), a natural waste product of human respiration that is far less toxic than carbon monoxide. Similarly, hydrogen and oxygen form two compounds: water (H20), which is essential for life; and hydrogen peroxide (H202), which is highly corrosive at high concentrations. These examples show how the same two elements can combine in different proportions to form different substances with vastly different properties.

The same holds true for differing combinations of more than two elements. Carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen combine to form various compounds that vary greatly in their toxicity. Methyl alcohol (CH3OH) is poisonous, but ethyl alcohol (C2H5OH) is only directly toxic when people consume large quantities of it over a short period.

Unlike both methyl alcohol and ethyl alcohol, glucose (C6H1206), however, is a vital substance that the body itself produces to maintain life. These examples show that major differences exist in the properties of chemical substances that have the same three elements but differ in the ratios that they have those elements.

Similarly, even though individual elements of music such as single notes have no intrinsic morality, we would be right to expect that differing combinations of those elements would have differing effects on people. To argue that combining various musical elements (without words) in a way that communicates a negative moral message to humans is impossible would not be in keeping with the reality that we find in the chemical makeup of God’s universe.

To hold the view, therefore, that music without words is inherently amoral, there should be some clear basis for expecting that combining musical elements would be somehow radically different (in the specific sense talked about in this article) from combining chemical elements. I am not aware of any such justification.

Based on the analogy between chemistry and music (as well as for many other valid reasons, both biblical and non-biblical), I believe that the right default position to take in the debate about the morality of music is that music without words is not inherently amoral.


If Music without Words Is Inherently Amoral, Then . . .

Do Birds Sing Music or Merely Make Sounds?

Would the Psalmists Approve of CCM?

David’s Instrumental Music Was Not Amoral

Toward Solving the Church’s Music Problems

A Parable about Music




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