Popular Music Guidelines
April 1974

“Popular Music Guidelines,” Ensign, Apr. 1974, 37

Popular Music Guidelines

As a parent or leader, what should you know about today’s music?

In December of 1970, the First Presidency stated:

“Through music, man’s ability to express himself extends beyond the limits of the spoken language in both subtlety and power. Music can be used to exalt and inspire or to carry messages of degradation and destruction. It is therefore important that as Latter-day Saints we at all times apply the principles of the gospel and seek the guidance of the Spirit in selecting the music with which we surround ourselves.” (Priesthood Bulletin, December 1970, p. 10.)

Elder Boyd K. Packer reemphasized that position when he spoke about the influence of music during the October 1973 General Conference of the Church. (Ensign, January 1974, p. 25.) He forcefully pointed out the need for youth to be particularly selective in choosing which popular music to listen to. Most will agree that popular music has a significant influence on the lives of young people, and it is the responsibility of priesthood leaders of youth to teach them to use good judgment in this area.

To begin with, however, there must be an atmosphere of mutual interest and understanding. Some leaders, having little knowledge of popular music, hesitate trying to discuss it in any more than a superficial way.

How can we best prepare to communicate effectively about popular music?

First of all, we need to understand something about popular music and why young people are attracted to it. If we condemn a musical presentation for being incompatible with the gospel, we should be able to say why we believe it is incompatible, then teach the principles that will help those who made the selection improve their judgment. We must therefore make the effort to become acquainted with popular music.

The effort to become acquainted probably will require some patient listening and evaluating; this is where the youth can help. From them we can learn what they like and why, how it sounds, and what the lyrics are saying. This task should be approached with an open mind, and we should try to listen through their ears. Along the way we may find some surprising rewards, because a good deal of contemporary popular music is commendable.

As leaders, we should try to remember how we felt about our music when we were young. Most of us can recall a time in our lives when the latest craze in popular music was important to us, and when we thought it sounded youthful, sophisticated, and exciting. To be accepted as part of the teenage society required at least some acquaintance with current music fads. (This was also true with the latest dance steps, clothing styles, and language expressions.) Our parents probably thought the music was rather silly and not worthy of much attention, but it nonetheless seemed important to us at the time.

As time went by, other interests gradually replaced our fascination with popular music, and we forgot how important it once was. Now, only a generation or two later, we look askance at our children’s captivation with this week’s top 40 hits.

To the young people of today, their music also seems youthful, sophisticated, and exciting. Through it they are able to identify and communicate with their society; it provides a common experience to which each can respond. Their friends expect them to be familiar with it. They hear it everywhere they go. As we talk with youthful members of the Church, we must not discount the seriousness of this issue.

Why, then, should today’s popular music be of any more concern than the music of two or three decades ago was? For one thing, society has undergone a subtle but powerful change: it has become increasingly more permissive in what it will accept in its popular entertainment, including movies, television, books and magazines, the theater, and, of course, music. The philosophies of the world are being promoted more blatantly and more persuasively than ever before.

For example, the moral standards of some of today’s affluent, worldly youth seem to be expressed in this code of conduct: “It’s perfectly all right to do anything at all as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone else.” This philosophy is evident in all forms of contemporary entertainment. Through popular music, we have seen advocated adventures with drugs, abandonment of moral standards, resistance to authority, and inability to restrain passions and selfish desires. Although most young people probably don’t live by this standard, trends during the last few years demonstrate that the idea is gaining wider acceptance all the time.

However, it is important and heartening to note that not all popular music, even so-called “rock” music, promotes this permissive philosophy. Many popular performers consistently produce records that convey optimism and Christian moral values. Our object as leaders should be to teach the youth to select the good and reject the bad. When they do so out of choice, we will know we have succeeded.

Another difference between some of the current popular music and the music of earlier generations is the emotional and rhythmic intensity generated by the performers, and the loudness at which it is presented. Intensity and loudness affect both the degree and quality of the emotional responses of the listeners, and some kinds of this emotional response produce negative effects on spiritual development.

How does one learn to select the best popular music? The answer to this question lies in what a song says, what a performance implies, and what kind of response is elicited. It’s quite easy to evaluate the explicit message of a song by listening to the words. If moral misconduct, the use of drugs, Satan-worship, rejection of legal authority, or any act or attitude contrary to the gospel is advocated, the song should not be used. For example, Jesus Christ, Superstar was found to be unacceptable because its doctrine is incorrect.

The second part of the selection process requires that we evaluate the intent of the performance. Unfortunately, it is possible to make even an innocent song appear “dirty” or evil by the way it is presented. If the intent of a performance is to agitate a negative emotion or to convey an unrighteous desire, even though the message may not be explicitly detailed in words, the work should obviously not be used. Some artists of “superstar” status must be passed by because of their reputations for improper intent in their performance.

Dress, grooming, and body gestures of the performers can convey improper intent, as can a vocal style that intimates more than a song lyric says, or a style that is uncontrolled and animalistic.

The remaining factor is concerned with a combination of loudness, rhythm (“beat”), tempo, the emotional fervor of the performers, and other elements. This combination is called intensity. The intensity of a musical performance is what affects the responses of those listening to it probably more than other factors. When a performance is very intense, the listener may become emotionally overwhelmed, his thoughts carried away by the music. This effect can be positive, as one may perhaps experience when hearing a rousing performance of the “Hallelujah Chorus”; or it can be detrimental, as when improper thoughts and emotions are inspired.

Intensity can be a special problem at a dance. When dance music is wild and uncontrolled, the dancers may become emotionally overstimulated. At such times they tend to let physical responses and gestures be controlled by the music instead of by their personal wills. Taken to the extreme, this leads to wild and suggestive movements. Under such conditions, the temptation to let one’s thoughts be led into unhealthy channels becomes impossible to resist.

When this happens, the intensity of the music may be reduced by lowering the volume or by changing the beat, tempo, or the performers’ emotional fervor. Often, lowering the volume reduces most of the problem. For example, at moderate loudness, the fast Dixieland style of music to which one would dance the Charleston is unoffensive to most people. When the same music is played at top volume, however, the effect of the beat and tempo are markedly different.

As a suggested guideline for dances, it is recommended that music should not dominate to the point that conversation is impossible. Sometimes, though, loudness by itself is not the problem. Other ways to reduce intensity at a dance are to modify the beat or tempo or to insist on a less emotional performance. It may be necessary to implement a combination of these elements. At a record hop, records should be avoided if they seem so intense at all listening levels that they elicit only a negative emotional response.

Many young people have been conditioned to desire the effect of being overpowered by a surge of rock-music-inspired emotion. Such seems to be the objective of many public youth dances and rock concerts. The challenge then becomes to find a way to teach young people when to use moderation.

To assist, a series of articles about popular music is being prepared for the New Era. These articles hopefully will be useful in discussions between youth and priesthood leaders and in family home evenings. Those who wish to develop more understanding of current popular music should read these articles.

As we engage in a dialogue with our young people, we must be understanding and look at the issue from their point of view, but it is also important to be forthright and not compromise principles of righteousness. As Elder Packer said in his General Conference talk: “It is not the privilege of those called as leaders to slide the Church about as though it were on casters, hoping to put it into the path that men or youth seem already to be traveling.”

The task will not be easy. Sustained effort and patience will be required. Each new generation of young people will need similar guidance.

Someone has said, “The test of a man’s character is what he would do if he knew no one would find out.” So it is with youth and popular music. We may control and improve our Church-sponsored dances, and we may remove objectionable music from our homes, but we will have been really successful only when our young people make the best choices because they want to.

The responsibility is clear. The Lord will help us fulfill it. Our youth will accept counsel that they can understand. We can teach them if we will, and we must.

  • Brother Bastian is chairman of the Youth Committee of the Church Music Department.