A Closer Look at Popular Music
March 1985

“A Closer Look at Popular Music,” Ensign, Mar. 1985, 35

A Closer Look at Popular Music

It was one of those no-win situations. I’d been asked to speak at a stake fireside on the subject of pop music and morality, a highly sensitive topic at best. Unfortunately, the previous evening a member of the stake presidency had closed down the stake youth dance. In his judgment, the music and the youth had gotten out of hand.

I could feel the emotional intensity in the air as the young people filed in to sit on one side of the chapel and the adults sat on the other. No one wanted to hear a lecture; they wanted to air their thoughts about last night’s dance. I was bombarded by questions and comments from both sides:

“I’m sure the Lord is displeased when our youth dance to that loud, vulgar music in his own house.”

“You think it’s loud and vulgar because you don’t like it. Your parents probably thought your music was loud and vulgar.”

“Why don’t you kids learn to appreciate real music—classical music—instead of idolizing those immoral rock stars?”

“You think rock singers are immoral? Did you ever read about Wagner or Lizst?”

“But that’s different. Their music is beautiful and uplifting. It is good.”

“Boring might be a better word for it!”

One elderly brother stood to settle the whole matter. “I can’t always make out the words, but whenever I hear the sound of that electric gee-tar I know they’re singing about dope!” And with that he dropped back into his seat as if he had solved every issue.

A few nodded in agreement. Others snickered or laughed out loud. I was tempted to chuckle myself until I realized that he had made the most profound comment of the evening. He was literally right. To him, every song with an electric “gee-tar” was associated with dope. In his mind and memory, the electric “gee-tar” and dope were inextricably connected.

In each of our minds, certain kinds of music are tied deeply to our own experiences and emotions. Our favorite music has an intensely personal meaning to us. Memories of our childhood, first date, first love, youth conferences, prom night, testimony meetings, marriage, and old friends may all be tied to a certain kind of music in one way or another. Thus, when someone attacks our music, we may feel that they are also attacking our deepest, most treasured experiences.

Because our response to music is so intensely personal, it is difficult to be objective when discussing music and morality. Most discussions, in fact, fail to focus on the moral issues at all. Instead, they quickly degenerate into arguments about individual tastes in which we ascribe moral qualities to those things we like. In short, that which we like we call “good,” and that which we don’t like we call “bad.”

Parents and leaders of youth would do well not to point the finger at broad categories, such as “hard rock,” “pop,” or “country and western” for two reasons: (1) Categories are vague and mean different things to different people. (2) To discuss categories is to miss the entire point. Moral and immoral songs exist in nearly every kind of music, and attacking a specific category may lead a person to feel justified in listening to immoral music of another type.

For those confused by the issues involved in any discussion about music and morality, let me assure you that there is a way out of the confusion. It is possible to understand music’s incredible power, consider the moral issues raised by that power, and then look at the music of today in light of its moral consequences.

I’m not one to quickly condemn the music of our day. Popular music is my profession, and it’s one of the greatest enjoyments of my life. I come from a long history of involvement in popular music. My mother, Alyce King, was one of the four singing King Sisters. I began my musical training early. While I was in college I traveled with the King Sisters as their arranger and accompanist. Later I worked as the musical director for the Four Preps. In 1965 I began work with Capitol Records as a record producer. A few years later I was hired as an arranger and rehearsal pianist for The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour on CBS television. In the seventies I created the music for Saturday’s Warrior, The Order Is Love, and My Turn on Earth.

Throughout all these years in the music business, I’ve learned that music has great power, both for good and for evil. And I’ve become increasingly concerned that that power is being used for evil in much of today’s popular music.

The Power of Music

Music is so powerful that it affects even our physical beings. Who hasn’t had the experience of tapping his toe to a certain song—without even realizing he was tapping until after the fact? Many ancient peoples recognized the power of music on the body, and some used music as a healing agent. In many mythologies, the god of music is also the god of medicine.

In recent years, studies have substantiated these ancient ideas, demonstrating music’s effect on a myriad of bodily functions: pulse rate, respiration rate, blood pressure, galvanic skin responses, brain-wave impulses, muscle responses, finger coordination, and reading speed and comprehension.1 One study suggests that certain rhythms actually have a weakening effect on the muscles of the body.2

A force so powerful that it can influence our hearts, our glands, and our muscles is a force to be reckoned with. The influence is significant enough that we should take care what kind of music we allow into our homes.

Music also has great power on our emotions. Music has been called the universal language because it speaks directly to our emotions. And our emotions and feelings influence our actions.

The power music has to communicate feelings was made dramatically clear to me while I was writing the musical score for the film Where the Red Fern Grows. While working on that project, I encountered a serious problem: the entire story was built around a boy’s love for his dogs, but that love wasn’t being communicated through the film itself. I composed a tender love theme to fill that void, and suddenly flat images on strips of celluloid had emotional life. The audience wept.

Music also has great effect on words. I like to use this example of a popular poem from the early 1960s:

She Loves You

You think you lost your love.

Well, I saw her yesterday—

It’s you she’s thinking of,

And she told me what to say.

She says she loves you,

And you know that can’t be bad;

Yes, she loves you,

And you know you should be glad.


She loves you,

Yeah, yeah, yeah.

She loves you,

Yeah, yeah, yeah.3

This text is almost humorous when read alone; it is far from award-winning poetry. Yet, when these words were set to a free-swinging, infectious tune, they created an irresistible force. Fans rushed out to buy more than three million singles of this record. How many copies of this text would have sold had it not been set to music?

Usually, music gives a song its emotional power, while lyrics tie that power to a concrete idea. Generally, lyrics appeal to the head, while music captures the heart.

The lyrics of “She Loves You” are rather innocuous, but the situation becomes serious when questionable or immoral words are wedded to an appealing melody. This was never clearer to me than when I was hired to make an instrumental version of another popular song. I didn’t care much for the tune and cared even less for the words. In order to take the melody and harmony off the record, though, I had to play it at least a dozen times. Even though I was making an instrumental version and wasn’t interested in the words at all, I couldn’t get the melody or the words out of my mind for days afterward. Hard-to-remember words stick in the mind easily when combined with catchy, easy-to-remember melodies. That song kept returning to haunt me. Ironically, I didn’t even like the song. What if I had liked it?

Music is the sugar coating that makes “bitter” lyrics palatable. We may become so infatuated with the rhythm, melody, or singer of a song that we transfer this emotion to the words, not caring what they really say. Even if the words are drug-oriented, erotic, violent, satanic, or just plain silly—when tied to a “hit” tune, they sneak past the screening mechanism of the brain to be stored in the subconscious, and to affect the listener accordingly.

And that’s one of the real problems with popular music today, one that adds to the confusion in discussing it. It comes down to a lack of control: We can’t control the lyrics attached to memorable music. We can’t control what the music and lyrics do to us. And much of the time we can’t even control what we listen to. For example, most radio stations—rock, pop, country, whatever—generally broadcast music indiscriminately. A moral song will be followed by a song about sex or violence, and unless we are constantly at the radio dial, we listen to both. Record albums often have a similar mix; we could skip the objectionable songs, but that’s often too much trouble.

The Morality of Pop Music

Much of our confusion about music can be cleared up by becoming more conscious of the music we are listening to and of its effect on us. Once we recognize what the music is doing to us, we are in a better position to screen out the bad and enjoy the good.

We should look at the music we allow into our homes and ask, “Is this music, with its lyrics, conducive to the Spirit of the Lord? Will it exercise its power in a positive or negative way?”

Certainly in popular music today there is music that is acceptable and worthwhile. In the last few years, for example, we heard some popular performers sing of the virtues of married love and of the love between parent and child. Two others recorded a song expressing the hope that all people would learn to live “in perfect harmony.” Another performer made the charts with a song specifically about doing right. Other songs have praised such laudable goals as peace, equality, sharing, and freedom.

Of course, all the music performed by the artists who recorded these songs is not uplifting. I am only pointing out that there have been some uplifting pop songs through the years. But let’s be honest—one of the reasons these songs stand out is that they are so rare in the music business today. The vast majority of today’s songs do not promote morality. Often they promote immorality. Satan is using much of today’s music to preach blatantly degrading messages. Obscene lyrics find their way into Church dances and into the homes of Church members. Words we would never permit to be spoken or read in our homes are played, sung, and repeated dozens of times—merely because they are set to music.

Many people who listen to popular music claim that they never listen to the lyrics and that the messages never affect them. Research, however, shows that our brains are marvelously perceptive; they pick up almost any message within sight or sound, whether we consciously know it or not. Those subconsciously received messages may have as much an effect on us as the messages we consciously seek out.4

While many songs are bad because they stress the trivial and selfish things of this world (such as fame, wealth, and cheap thrills), the most objectionable of all focus on illegal drugs, illicit sex, violence, and satanism. Let’s look at these four aspects of popular music, taking examples from recent rock music simply because that’s what most young people today listen to.

Music about Drugs. Beer-drinking songs have been around for centuries. But in the mid-sixties, a new kind of song appeared. Mystical lyrics with obscure words sang of the pleasures of a different kind of artificial stimulant. Songs about illegal drugs, from marijuana to LSD, began to appear on the pop charts.

At first, society wouldn’t tolerate an open endorsement of illegal drugs, so double entendre and hidden code words were used to spread the gospel of drug usage to an ever-growing underground. Later, references to drugs became more open. Some groups even named themselves after—and built their entire image on—drugs and drug-related terminology.

With the prevalence of drug songs over the past twenty years, I can’t help but wonder: Has the popular music of our time helped to lead the children of this generation to their widespread experimentation with drugs? It may be impossible to scientifically prove a cause-effect relationship, but I think common sense leads us inescapably to that conclusion.

Music about Sex. Over 70 percent of all popular songs are about love. At least, that’s what certain studies have shown.5 But actually, many of those songs are about lust, the counterfeit of love. To make a list of groups who sing about lust and illicit sex is almost to list the who’s who of rock music.

A concerned adult leader once wrote me a letter about a half-hour ride with teenagers in a car. As they rode, the youth listened to their normal radio station. “This station was not an adult, or even college-age or punk-oriented FM station,” she wrote. “It was the most popular AM station in town.” Then she described the songs the station played. Out of nine songs in that half hour, eight were about premarital or extramarital sex. “What particularly disturbed me about these songs,” she wrote, “was the fact that I knew the very young listened to them over and over and over, many times every day of the year.”

Songs and poems of adultery and fornication are nothing new; every generation has had its fill of them. But in order to make their product more and more exciting—and sell more songs—record producers have gradually added additional perversions to their traditional preoccupation with illicit sex. Today, songs containing references to homosexuality, transvestism, sodomy, masturbation, sadomasochism, rape, prostitution, venereal disease, child abuse, and incest have all been added to the musical menu.

Many groups use sex and nudity on album covers to help sell records. Some base their name and image on sexually descriptive words. Some groups and singers openly admit to sexual deviation. They seem to glory in their decadent image.

Sexual immorality and drug usage have always gone on in secret, but never before in our society have they been the openly admitted and accepted norm. Within the last ten to twenty years, we have experienced a revolution in the values our society deems acceptable. Today, almost all former sexual taboos are considered light humor in most television shows and movies. Without ever subjecting these vital issues to a rational debate, many people have allowed their attitude toward sin to change from hatred to endurance to pity to embracing. I am convinced that of the many factors which aided this revolution, music has been a major one.

As for the future, it may safely be said that although the lyrics, titles, and names of the groups will change from month to month, illicit and immoral songs will continue to be made as long as they sell.

Songs of Violence. Much of the folk rock of the sixties and seventies carried a heavy political message; it was based on a certain youthful idealism, with ultimate goals of racial equality, peace, and love. But that love soon turned into open sex, nudity, and drugs, and the messages of peace increasingly became messages of violence.

The antiestablishment tone of those earlier days has experienced a rebirth lately in the musical styles of new wave and punk rock. Unfortunately, many of these groups have picked up where the last generation left off. Violence and sex are their major messages. A member of a group that has been called “America’s foremost sex-and-violence band” told a nationwide television audience: “Rock ’n roll has always been sexual. Rock ’n roll has always been violent. It has teeth. It will scratch your face off. That’s why I like it.”6

Rock music may have always been violent, but it has become increasingly so in recent years. At concerts of one rock band, for example, dark-hooded characters performed mock acts of violence onstage, imitating child abuse. During another number, the band endlessly chanted, “We don’t need no education,” as children came onstage to destroy school desks and mannequins of teachers.

Album covers of various “power rock” groups present people smoking pot and engaging in street brawls. One performer likes to taunt his audiences with what he calls “combat rock.” He claims, “Rock is a perfect primal method of releasing our violent instincts.”7

Many other groups also sing of violence and use it in their acts. Murder, child abuse, and torture are common themes, and concerts have become increasingly violent.

Satanic Songs. Moroni 7:17 [Moro. 7:17] tells us that anything that persuades us to do evil (such as the songs referred to in the previous sections) is ultimately “of the devil.” But, unfortunately, several groups have progressed beyond merely trying to persuade us to do evil. By their own boasting, many have become heavily involved in the occult, in witchcraft, in black magic, and in Satan worship itself. Such groups use their music and their lyrics to spread this mysticism and demonology to their listening public.

Symbols of witchcraft, cult worship, and sacrilegious imagery appear on album covers as well as in lyrics: One group dedicated its hit to an ancient Welsh witch, and a singer in concert has dedicated songs to “all the witches in the world.”8 Another group has built its entire career on “Satan rock,” using satanic symbols on T-shirts and album covers and holding altar calls to Satan before some of their concerts.

Some who have spoken out about today’s popular music have sounded like extremists or alarmists. That’s unfortunate, because the problem is real. I have purposely referred only to major groups in this discussion—these are not obscure singers no one has heard of.

Music is one of the Lord’s greatest tools in helping us build spirituality. But it is also one of the adversary’s deadliest weapons. Using it, he creates sugar-coated poison that can slowly destroy all our brightest dreams and leave us spiritually wounded.

The irony is that we take this deadly spiritual poison voluntarily into our homes, schools, and churches. We share it with our loved ones. We pay millions of dollars a year for the privilege of exposing ourselves to it. Like foolish Trojans, we open the gates of our strongholds and let the enemy in.

When a person eats unhealthy food, he often senses very little immediate effect. But the body is affected nevertheless, and if that diet is continued, the effect can be severe. Our physical bodies are the sum total of the foods we consume. The same is true of our minds and spirits. We are living in a telestial world, complete with telestial arts and entertainment which can fill our minds with telestial images. Those telestial images often stimulate telestial thoughts, which, if not rejected, will lead to telestial behavior. The eventual result can be a telestial person. We would be more healthy spiritually if we never consumed any evil. Every bit harms us.

The prophets of the Lord understand this process and have given us this sharp admonition: “Come ye out from the wicked, and be ye separate, and touch not their unclean things.” (Alma 5:57.) I believe that much of today’s music can be counted among these “unclean things.”

When we consider music’s impact on us, and how many thousands of hours we listen to it throughout our lives, it seems wise to choose for ourselves and our families music which builds up our spiritual reserves rather than that which continually wears them down.

Setting Musical Standards

It’s easy to see that much of today’s popular music has a detrimental effect. But it’s not so easy to help family members want to listen to something else. Here are some suggestions for parents:

1. The first thing is to become truly aware of what you and your children are listening to. Do the songs you have on the radio or record player promote or describe immorality in any of its forms? It may be that there is no problem in your home—or you and your children may indeed be deeply attached to harmful music.

In evaluating the situation in your home, realize that most teenagers feel a great deal of peer pressure to be knowledgeable about the music scene—it answers some of their need for self-esteem and gives them the security that comes from identifying themselves with “the group.” Many teenagers use rock music as an escape from fears, problems, feelings of inadequacy, or boredom. Perhaps what you are seeing is only a symptom of the problem.

2. Teenagers are often unaware that music can have a harmful spiritual effect. If you feel concerned about the music your teens are listening to, it may be helpful to explain what effect immoral music can have on our spirits. Teens are at a time in their lives when they particularly need the guidance of the Holy Ghost, and some kinds of music can deaden their receptiveness to spiritual promptings. Rather than simply establishing rules about what your youth can or cannot listen to, explain why you are concerned. Then encourage them to govern themselves.

3. In a spirit of cooperation, sit down together and set some limits. For example, stations A and B are totally off limits because they play an overabundance of offensive material; other stations can be listened to only between the hours of _____ and _____ P.M., and the volume must not be so loud that you can hear it through a closed door and down the hall; the stereo belongs to the entire family and we must take turns. Limits like these are only fair to the other members of the household—and they help the teenager become more accustomed to the idea of controlling his listening habits.

4. Keeping the lines of communication open is much more important than any short-term success you might have in trying to alter your teenager’s listening habits by being hard-nosed. Be careful not to ruin your relationship with him by attacking his music. Instead, unemotionally discuss the moral issues with him, tactfully making it clear what you think is right and wrong and giving him ample opportunity to express his opinions.

Hopefully, as you reason with him, your teenager will come to share your concerns about offensive music and will be willing to moderate his listening habits. If not, keep communicating. Having a good relationship with him will bring more lasting benefits than forcing him to change music.

5. The Lord has counseled, “Let virtue garnish thy thoughts unceasingly.” (D&C 121:45.) Accordingly, then, our abandonment of immoral music is only half the battle. Cultivating a taste for uplifting and encouraging music in our homes is the necessary other half.

In trying to help your children develop a broader base, expose them to a variety of the world’s great music. To create a small library of good music, talk to a music teacher or a knowledgeable neighbor; ask for a list of popular classics that are especially appealing to children and young people. You might also introduce Primary songs, hymns, the emerging LDS popular music, and serious sacred music into the home. This not only provides an alternative to the telestial music of the world, but it also tends to focus the mind on celestial concepts, encouraging celestial desires and behavior.

Don’t surrender your stereo to your teenagers. As parents, take your turn enjoying your favorite music from the family record and tape collection.

If possible, provide your children with formal training on a musical instrument. Take them to local performances of good music. They will particularly enjoy a concert featuring music they have already learned to appreciate with you at home. Sing together regularly as a family, especially on family nights, holidays, and special occasions. The object isn’t to make musical geniuses of your children, but rather to enlarge their understanding and appreciation of good music of all styles.

It’s not always easy to change musical habits. But if a certain form of music is hampering our spiritual health and development, in whatever subtle and quiet way, it must be given up in favor of music that will build spiritual strength. That doesn’t mean we must give up all popular music. But we must be willing to seriously control our listening—and shun the groups, songs, and music that are spiritually harmful.

Music is such an important—and powerful—part of our lives that we should consider our listening habits thoughtfully and prayerfully. If we remember our eternal goals, we will seek out music that will help us, rather than hinder us.


  1. See, for example, Patricia Lynn Ryerson, The Effects of Rhythm and Music on Learning and Performance of a Motor Task (master’s thesis, USC, 1971), pp. 10–27; R. W. Lunden, An Objective Psychology of Music (New York: Ronald Press Co., 1953), pp. 150–77, 304–19.

  2. See John Diamond, Your Body Doesn’t Lie (New York: Warner Books, 1979), pp. 7–53, 151–81.

  3. John Lennon and Paul McCartney, “She Loves You,” copyright 1963–64 Northern Songs, Ltd., London, England. All rights for the United States of America, its territories and possessions, and Canada, assigned to and controlled by GIL Music Corp., N.Y., N.Y.

  4. Herb Hendler, Year by Year in the Rock Era: Events and Conditions Shaping the Rock Generations that Reshaped America (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1983).

  5. See for example Joe Saegert, “Another Look at Subliminal Perception,” Journal of Advertising Research, February 1979, pp. 55–57.

  6. Entertainment Tonight, syndicated television show, 9 Jan. 1982.

  7. Circus, 13 May 1976, p. 29.

  8. Newsweek, 10 May 1976, p. 121.

  • Lex de Azevedo, a music composer and producer, serves as second counselor in the California Arcadia Mission. He and his wife, Linda, are the parents of eight children.

Photography by Michael Schoenfeldt