I am going to depart from what is normally understood as "good sense" here in my opening statement and do something that writers are not usually supposed to do: I am going to admit that I am not thoroughly, 100% convinced of my own thesis.
As I indicated in my last article on the subject of rock music, there are many, many reasons which converged in my mind and ultimately led me to purge my home of "the Devil's music." One of those reasons is the music itself, or, the style of the music considered as a style. I know there are some who condemn the style itself as intrinsically evil; I am not wholly convinced on this point. I hasten to add, however, these two qualifications: 1) you cannot consider the merits of rock music purely on the basis of the style (to the exclusion of the historical revolution that accompanied it, the lyrical content, the lifestyles of those who make a career of it, etc.), and 2) I most certainly hold that, while the style itself may not be intrinsically evil, it is certainly an inferior form of music which tends toward musical disorder.
My hesitancy to condemn the style outright stems mostly from the fact that the style is hard to pin down and define. There are many, many forms of rock, and some styles that I may classify as "rock" may not be considered as such by others. There is metal, punk, grunge, hip-hop, rap-rock, alternative rock, pop-rock, folk rock, classic rock, oldies rock, and on and on it goes. So what makes a particular style classifiable as "rock?" Certainly Rage Against the Machine is to be considered rock music, but what about Elvis? Or the Everly Brothers? Or, to bring us more into modern times, what about Celine Dion, Jewel, Dave Matthews, Usher, or Avril Lavigne? What about bands who are bringing the "swing" style back into the popular mainstream?
It gets rather tricky to come up with one strict definition of "rock music." Some say it's the syncopated rhythm; but some of the best classical and modern orchestral music is heavily syncopated. It's what makes the music interesting! Some say it's the predominant drum beat; yet, I could point to several examples of music in the mainstream today (Britney Spears' latest song, Everytime, is a good example) which are utterly devoid of any drum beat, let alone a predominant drum beat. Would I still consider Britney Spears' music as "rock?" You bet. Would I condemn some of the modern symphony composers as "rock?" Not at all.
I really think what makes rock 'n' roll is a combination of one or more of these elements: the rhythm, the predominant drum beat, the syncopation, the artist involved, the lyrics, and most importantly, what I can only describe as a "rock culture" that pervades this style of music. It's tough to put your finger on, but there is definitely a spirit of rebellion, or of unbridled liberty, or even of despair that inhabits this style.
Allow me, then, to go down a bit of a rabbit trail here and introduce you to some basic musical training. Music is extremely ordered; any good student of music will tell you that it is heavily based on mathematics (believe it or not!), which is itself a very structured system. There are rules to be followed in the process of creating music, and yet, as with all structured systems, there is flexibility. Some of the rules can be bent. Some can be broken, if only momentarily. These occasional deviations add flavor to the composition, but if the exceptions become the rule, you end up with something that is – to borrow some post-conciliar terminology – not "authentic" and "fully" proper to the "inherent dignity" of music.
The "major" scale is made up of eight notes, and the distance from one note to another is referred to as an "interval." The order of intervals in a scale is fixed; it is the same no matter what key you are in. So, for example, the C major scale is made up of the notes C, D, E, F, G, A, B, and back to C again. The nearest note in relation to any note you are on is a "half step" away; if you were to play a C, the next nearest note (or "half step") would be a C-sharp. Thus, moving from C to D involves two "half steps" (C-to-C-sharp, C-sharp-to-D), also known as a "whole step." As I said, every major scale is based on the same pattern: whole-step, whole-step, half-step, whole-step, whole-step, whole-step, half-step. I bring this to your attention only to demonstrate that music can be a very technical thing, and the more you investigate the theory of music, the more you see just how well-ordered and structured it really is.
As a composer writes music, he begins by choosing a scale, or a "key" that tells him what notes he can use, and which notes he cannot use. If he were using the C scale I outlined above, the composer would naturally use those notes which I listed above in crafting a melody. Of course, he can occasionally make use of a note or two which does not belong in that scale (such as a G-sharp or a B-flat) to make the melody more interesting. These notes which are foreign to the scale are called "accidentals." To give an example, The Star-Spangled Banner uses only notes which are proper to its scale. When you sing Happy Birthday, you are using only notes proper to that scale; but when your obnoxious Uncle Bob leans in at the end and adds, "and many moooore," this would be an example of adding an "accidental" to the scale.
Likewise, rhythm is a very well-ordered and precise thing. Every song has what is called a "meter," the pulses that keep the flow of the melody moving. The most common meters are those which are divisible into sections of two, three, four, and six. Again, let me help make this more concrete by giving an example or two: The Star-Spangled Banner is split into rhythmic sections of threes, like so:
(3) 1 2 3 1 2 3 - 1 2 3 1 2 ... etc.
O | say, can you | see, by the | dawn's ear-ly | light
Waltzes and polkas are usually written in this meter (think of The Blue Danube and you'll know what I mean immediately). Another example of this meter would be the hymn O God, Almighty Father, or Come, Holy Ghost. Other songs are split into meters of four beat, such as:
(4) 1 2 3 4 1 2 3 4
Hail | Ho - ly Queen en - | throned a- bove ...
Other examples of this meter would be the children's song Are You Sleeping, Brother John, and the hymns Tantum Ergo (not the chant version) and O, Sanctissima. Most rock and roll songs are written in this meter.
Now, in a meter like this (which is called 4/4, by the way), there are natural accents. You may not think of them consciously, but you subconsciously follow these accents, which naturally fall on the first and third beat. If you were to stop reading for a moment and sing the opening lines to Hail, Holy Queen, you would probably feel those accents: Hail ho-ly queen en-throned a-bove, O Ma-ri-a.
What rock and roll music does to this meter, however, is an inversion of order. Most rock songs place the heavy drum beat, not on the first and third beats, but on the second and fourth beats. This inversion creates a continual and unnatural tension in the music, a tension that lasts through the entire song. Almost everyone knows the rock-anthem by Queen entitled We Will Rock You, even if they've never heard of Queen; the rhythm gets pounded out at some point at nearly every baseball, football, basketball, or hockey game. You remember it? Boom-boom-CLAP! Boom-boom-CLAP! This is a perfect example of placing the accent on the unnatural beat: one-and TWO, three-and FOUR.
Already, then, rock and roll is founded upon an inversion of natural order; and as I've said before, a good Catholic ought to be very keen about preserving right order in all things. Inversion is, it must be said, the calling card of Lucifer. Everything is inverted in his upside-down world.
Rock and roll also presents us with another inversion of order. In order to have something that can be properly called "music," you absolutely must have a melody, and in order for that melody to keep moving, you must have rhythm as the undercurrent of the melody. It is quite literally impossible to have a melody without also having rhythm. This is the proper order within music: rhythm is the servant of melody. Rock and roll, however, places heavy emphasis on the rhythm instead of the melody, so much so that in some cases melody can be sacrificed entirely and still be sold on the market as a "song." There is currently a song on the top 40 by a group called D12, which features verses that are entirely spoken over a constant beat, with no melody whatsoever. Not only is this being called "music," it is wildly popular music (it's in the number two slot on Billboard this week)! So here again, we have an entirely inverted system of order that serves as the foundation for this style of music.
Alright, so what's wrong with that? I am a firm believer (as every Catholic should be) that body and soul are very much interrelated. When the body is suffering, perhaps from some kind of illness or the like, the soul suffers with it. I don't know about you, but I find it very hard to be "spiritual," to pray, to worship, etc., when I've got the flu. Grace builds upon nature, and if nature is not functioning properly, the flow of grace will be hindered. I learned this lesson in a most powerful way when I went to my spiritual director, complaining of a "hit-and-miss" devotional life, and his firm advice was to set myself a daily routine and stick to it. I had no order in my day-to-day life at the time, and as a result, my spiritual life followed suit; just as I rarely went to bed at night or got up in the morning at consistent times during the week, so also did I rarely pray consistently during the week. Once I put my physical life back in order, the spiritual life naturally followed suit.
This being the case, let's return to the question: what will be the effect on your spiritual life if your daily routine involves three-to-four hours of listening to music that is, on the whole and in more ways than one, built upon an inversion of order? The negative effects may be slow in coming, and they may be barely imperceptible, but I am convinced that they are there. These effects are only intensified when this wrongly-ordered music is coupled with lyrics that subtly provide you with a thorough catechesis in worldly thinking. I will talk more about this side of rock and roll in the next installment.
I would like to discuss one more aspect of rock and roll that I touched upon last issue: the quality of the music itself. Music is a function of our creativity, and it has been scientifically linked to the development of our intellect. Companies like Baby Einstein are making money hand-over-fist by getting parents to purchase classical music for their infants and toddlers, all based upon these scientific studies that show how listening to classical music helps to develop the brains of young children (shameless plug: I’ve used the Baby Bach video with my own daughter, and it does work). There are similar enterprises that focus on selling this same concept to adults. Certain types of classical music are recommended based on the results you want to experience: this Mozart sonata is recommended if you need better concentration, that thundering Wagner overture is recommended if you need more energy. Debussy is good for relaxation, and Bach is good for creativity. As a computer programmer, I found myself benefiting from classical music years before I made the decision to “de-rock” my life. If I was faced with a particularly challenging piece of code-writing, I would slap my headphones on and listen to Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto #2 while I worked. Conversely, I found that if I listened to rock and roll when faced with these same coding challenges, it was nearly impossible to focus, and I would eventually have to shut the music off until I’d solved the problem.
I think there's a good reason for this. Have you ever listened to a stirring aria from an opera? Listen to one sometime, and take note of what the orchestra is doing. The music is all over the map! The strings are zig-zagging in one direction, the woodwinds are meandering in another direction, and the brass is popping in and out with occasional musical exclamation marks. Subconsciously, your brain is following all of that well-ordered motion, which means your brain is in high-gear. You're getting an intellectual workout, and you don't even realize it! Add to this the fact that the emotion of the composer is transmitted to you through the music, which usually means you will, to some extent, absorb that emotion and make it your own. This is why, if you need energy, you should crank up a rousing Sousa march; alternatively, if you need to wind down and relax, you should put in a reflective Bach air. Sousa's energy becomes your energy; Bach's contemplation becomes your own contemplation.
Now apply these principles to rock and roll. Where the opera aria features a constantly-moving accompaniment that functions independently of the vocalist, rock music usually features (on a good day) four or five chords, each one sustained for long periods of time before moving to the next chord in the progression. The bass guitar tends to just drone the same note over and over. In short, the music is unchallenging and boring. So why do people listen to it? The beat, of course. The music itself is usually secondary. Just as the brain is constantly active while listening to a symphony, so also the brain is much less active while listening to a pop rock song.
What of the emotions that are conveyed? Rock and roll seems capable of conveying a very limited range of emotion, the two most prominent emotions being either unbridled carelessness, or deep angst. I realize that's a generalization that doesn't hold true for all songs, but on the whole I believe it is accurate. To sum it up: classical music stirs creativity and intelligence, and rock makes you either want to "lose control" or retreat into a gloomy cloud of self-consideration.
Academic statistics seem to be bearing this out in the real world. The last time I looked at reports coming out the public education system, things looked pretty bleak. The younger generation (from which, I hasten to add, I am not far removed) is getting less and less intelligent every year. Grades are at all-time lows, and drop-outs are at all-time highs. Standards are being lowered just so the school systems can save face and not reveal to the world that they are failing to educate our children. Certainly television and video games have a lot to do with this decline, but do you think the ubiquitous presence of rock and roll has nothing to do with it? Rock does not stimulate the brain, nor does it generally inspire us to reach higher and do better; it deadens the brain with its intrinsic droning style, and it inspires irresponsibility.