Why Is Music Forbidden?
“If music be the food of love, play on,
Give me excess of it; that surfeiting,
The appetite may sicken, and so die.”
William Shakespeare, Twelfth Night
Music is forbidden in some cultures and religions. This is because the power of music to influence, control, and manipulate is immense.
Why Outlaw Music?
A recent conversation with a Muslim friend sparked this week’s post.
He explained to me that most music is technically forbidden by the majority of Islamic scholars.
This was surprising to me, for several reasons. First off, most of my Muslim friends listen to the same exact music I do, and in the same amounts that I do.
More importantly however, I didn’t see a logical reason for this prohibition.
I of course know of the many other common things that are forbidden by the major religions, including: pre-marital sex, alcohol, drugs, consumption of certain animals, violence, theft, etc.
The reasons for abstaining from these activities are fairly obvious, as much as we can debate their place in modern day society.
Things like theft, and violence supersede religious belief, and fall into the category of universally agreed upon ethics. Pretty much all major legal systems have enshrined these principles, which means that religion is not doing anything unique here.
Pre-marital sex, and alcohol and drug use are a bit trickier. These seem to stem from the belief that human beings ought to delay gratification, and stay away from substances that can alter one’s mind and cause them to act in a “sinful” manner.
People can go back and forth on this, but whether or not you hold conservative values—you can admit that these rules made a lot of sense when they were drawn up thousands of years ago, as early society struggled to reign in the lawlessness and savagery that plagued pre-civilization man.
The other minor things, like consuming pork, wearing threads made of cotton, again point to religion functioning as the only working moral system to prevent people from doing things that could possibly harm or endanger them (at the time).
Lastly, abstaining from technology on the Sabbath also makes complete sense in encouraging people to dedicate an entire day of the week to reconnecting with their spiritual side. A critical component of religion always has been self-sacrifice and discipline, in order to humble you and remind you of the organization/belief system that you owe your life to.
But music? Music is one of the earliest forms of human expression, up there with cave paintings.
In the earliest of times, music functioned hand in hand with storytelling, and if the music was not entirely instrumental, chances are that it had religious undertones.
I found out that Buddhism also largely discourages listening to music, and have heard of several instances of particularly strict parents barring their children from listening to any music.
From a present day perspective, especially in the case of younger people, I can see why music is viewed as a threat to their development.
I particularly enjoy the most popular genres of today, but there is no denying the lyrical content veers into the “sinful”, containing themes of partying, hooking up, doing drugs, committing violence, and materialistic obsession.
To parents that are afraid of their kids being easily influenced by such lyrics, I encourage you to take a long hard look in the mirror and assess your own parenting, if you believe your child is weak-minded enough to inform their world view from the local hit of the week.
But I do think this line of thinking is informative as to why certain religions, and governments even have thought to ban music.
There is no denying the persuasive and distracting nature of music. Combine pleasant melodies, sexually suggestive rhythms, and entertaining lyrics, and as the free market has demonstrated—you can create a multi-billion dollar industry.
Perhaps the greatest danger when it comes to music is the insidious nature. Take a look around you as you engage in your day to day, and you’ll see the vast majority of people with headphones in their ears, no matter their activity.
Studying? Listening to music. Walking around? Listening to music. Driving? Listening to music? Relaxing at home? Listening to music. Partying? Listening to music.
Music is pleasurable, its addicting, and it has the unique ability to give your body a natural sort of high. I know I’ve found myself mouthing or singing along to lyrics in a trancelike nature, without even quite realizing what I’m saying or thinking.
It is also a medium that can be spread easily, which makes it an effective tool for communicating with (and manipulating) groups of people. What other form of entertainment can cause people to gather together in large groups and chant words over and over, engaging in a coordinated groupthink and shutting out the world?
As I mentioned, there is lots of rich tradition and artistry that can be passed around and down through music, but the shift towards commercialism has led to us constantly blasting the auditory equivalent of fast food in our ears.
Am I being critical of the artists of today? Of course not. I enjoy this music as much as the next person, but I’m simply trying to disassociate myself with my mindless pleasure, and observe the situation as a deeply religious or cynical person might.
Ultimately, the music of today is a soundtrack to our inner collective subconscious, and the particularly dark stuff is hypnotizing for this reason—you can’t openly express these topics through spoken word without confronting your own values.
You might be familiar with Sigmund Freud’s concept of the id, the part of our brain that is the most rudimentary. It represents the animal part of our mind, the part that came when we lived in a brutish world where we only relied on instincts and survival. Most importantly, it contains the aggressive and sexual drives that we have no choice but to repress in a modern and civilized world.
Music in its current form is a bridge to the id, and perhaps the religious scholars of earlier times saw this connection and sought to sever the temptation.