Homer’s Odyssey tells the story of Odysseus and his epic journey to the underworld. Upon his return home, a maiden named Circe tells Odysseus of some grave dangers. One in particular, she said, were the “Sirens who enchant all who come near them. If anyone unwarily draws in too close and hears the singing of the Sirens, his wife and children will never welcome him home again, for they sit in a green field and warble him to death with the sweetness of their song.” The island from which the Sirens sang was surrounded by unseen underwater dangers that would cause ships to become shipwrecked. These were the same kinds of dangers for which lighthouses are built to provide warning.
The Sirens’ melody was so strong that Odysseus had to put wax in the ears of his crewmen and have himself tied to the mast in order to make it past that island. The beauty of the melody was so alluring, the harmony so irresistible, that seafarers would disregard the larger picture of their journey in favor of a momentary respite from reality, which would serve only to their destruction.
Now, what does this piece of Greek mythology have to do with the gospel? You young people are probably thinking “I’m supposed to be on summer vacation, don’t make me think!” Not to worry, my comments this morning are directed to just the musical element that those Sirens represent, and the discussion will not require a great deal of mental stretching. The music that we listen to and find escape in can be inhibiting our ability to reach our full potential and worse, cause us to become shipwrecked and without an eternal family.
The simplicity of music and the seemingly insignificant role that it plays in our lives may cause some wonder among you as to why a sacrament talk should be spent on such a subject. But if the opportunities which we have to fill our lives with fluff versus substance are accumulated, the choices that we make in those moments take us to where we end up, and that may be far afield from where we could be. To be sure, I understand that most of the members here are not filling their “down time” with degrading or base music, but perhaps a better understanding of the “why” is in order, and for those younger members out there, the knowledge that it isn’t that parents don’t “get” your music; it’s that they have recognized the influence that it can have on an individual’s ability to reach their divine potential as sons and daughters of God.
Divine Nature of Music
To get more directly to the heart of music’s role here on earth, we need to begin with a more eternal view. In premortality, we did not have bodies, yet somehow we were able to express ourselves when it came time to convince one another of the necessity of a Savior. In fact, father Lehi saw premortal angels singing praises to God, and King Benjamin expressed his hope to join with the choirs above, and lest we forget the heavenly choir on that Christmas night, “praising God and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.” I have often wondered who was included in that multitude of heavenly hosts.
Reaching to the most seemingly inanimate objects of physical existence, our Heavenly Father has made an orchestra of nature. The Doctrine and Covenants reads, “let the mountains shout for joy.” And so they have. Satellites around the solar system have detected and recorded a cosmic symphony that is really quite remarkable. Today’s multitude of languages and their evolution may have been the construct of men, but music has only ever had one form. It crosses the veil between the spiritual and the physical.
Years ago, there was a young man who was not very productive in school. He just wasn’t learning anything. The teachers of this young man called his parents in and recommended that he be withdrawn from school and placed into the work force, performing some menial labor. His father purchased for him a violin, at which he practiced. He practiced and he practiced. He never became a professional, but it helped Albert. In fact, Albert Einstein attributed his thoughts and understanding of science to his ability to play the violin. Yes, that young man was Albert Einstein, and by learning to play the violin, he was able to unlock that part of his potential that allowed him to see things more clearly. “One of the most important things in my life is music,” he often said. Whenever he reached a dead-end, the violin solved all of his problems. In fact, it was through the violin that he solved the ubiquitous E=MC2. Music unlocks what is already known by our spirit, but inexpressible temporally. It bridges the gap between comprehension of an idea and its expression.
Lest I be thrown into the killjoy pile, let me be clear that the soundtrack of our lives does not have to solely consist of church approved music. In fact, it must not. Elder Bruce C. Hafen said, “Whether in the form of music, books, friends, or opportunities to serve, there is much that is lovely or of good report or praiseworthy that is not the subject of detailed discussion in Church manuals, conference talks, or courses of instruction. Those who aren’t open to people or experiences that are not obviously related to some Church work or program may well live less abundant lives – and make fewer contributions – than the Lord intends.” Clark Memorandum, Spring 2011. The question that naturally follows is: How do we identify that which uplifts, even though it does not come from Salt Lake with a logo or a Deseret Book stamp on it?
We are taught principles, and we are to allow the Spirit to guide us as to what is considered appropriate music that fills our time, but before getting there, allow me to discuss a more tangible unit of measure. That music which uplifts and edifies has order. “Behold, mine house is a house of order, saith the Lord God, and not a house of confusion.” It has rhythm, symmetry, harmony, high and low, light and dark, repetition and change. The more complex, the more enlightening.
“But,” we may say, “the purpose of music is to escape all of that, to let go, and be free.” In the March 1985 Ensign, Lex de Azevedo wrote that “music is the sugar-coating that makes bitter lyrics palatable.” We cannot afford to mistake wholesome music for sugar. Our musical diet cannot consist solely of junk food.
In First Samuel, Saul was a grandson of Benjamin, “and there was not a goodlier person among the children of Israel.” He became the first king of Israel. He had a nation to care for, and business to attend to. He kept making mistakes, misjudgments, and could not sleep. He tried sorcery, medicine, everything that he could think of. One of his advisors said that a young man in Bethlehem had a reputation for music that could soothe and facilitate clarity. He sent for this “son of Jesse” (David was his name), and everything changed as David played his lyre for the king. Israel was set in order, and David ultimately inherited the throne.
If music such as the kind played by David could set in order as boisterous a nation as Israel, could it not provide relief to us with work, children’s activities, callings, preparing lessons or meals for families (or both), and still finding time for family home evening, daily personal and family scripture study, and daily prayer? We can attain to a higher degree of righteousness if we will fill our lives with light, even filling the “down time” with edifying music.
Now, a couple of principles to aid in the selection of music that meets our high standards. First, look to the For the Strength of Youth book.
For the Strength of Youth
Yes, even those of us who are not exactly in the “youth” classification would do well to study its guidelines. Elder Hales said once of a particularly suspect movie when questioned by one of his grandchildren, “Grandpa is not old enough to see that movie.” The principles in For the Strength of Youth are enduring.
It reads, “Music is an important and powerful part of life. It can be an influence for good that helps you draw closer to Heavenly Father. However, it can also be used for wicked purposes. Unworthy music may seem harmless, but it can have evil effects on your mind and spirit.
“Choose carefully the music you listen to. Pay attention to how you feel when you are listening. Don’t listen to music that drives away the Spirit, encourages immorality, glorifies violence, [or] uses foul or offensive language … .” (“Music and Dancing,” 20). Again, we return to identifying the sugar-coating over bitter lyrics. Youth, if your description of any given work of music – or any form of media, for that matter – includes the qualifier “but,” then think very carefully about whether it conforms to this high standard.
Like Odysseus’ Sirens, tantalizing beats draw listeners in, unaware of obscured lyrics until they are firmly rooted in the mind by repetition. One song at a time, the buildup of sugar-coated lyrics in our minds becomes how we act, our basis for justification of merely average standards, and who we are. We stop progressing. Without realizing our situation, we can become shipwrecked.
Rise above it. Lehi’s final counsel to his children to “Awake, … come forth out of obscurity, and arise from the dust” is the great call of the gospel to reach higher to our divine potential and identify those seemingly innocuous obstructers – such as the music that we listen to – that may impede realization of that divine mandate.
Ultimately, what we become will be a reflection of what we have consumed, the second principle of guidance, “by their fruits, ye shall know them.”
“By their fruits, ye shall know them.”
We have commonly heard the story of Jefferson’s reliance on playing the violin, then writing, pacing and playing some more, then writing some more, until he had completed drafting the Declaration of Independence. The fruit of Jefferson’s music was a marvelous document that inspired a revolution. Now, we may not incite revolutions as a result of playing an instrument or the music that we listen to; to the contrary, our generation calls for holding the line of morals rather than advocating change. In fact, it is standing for right, that the music that fills our lives will strengthen us to do.
Years ago, there were two concerts in Central Park within a week of each other. The hour of performance was the same, and the attendees were largely the same. The first, a concert of an orchestra and operatic in nature, was beautiful, and ended with the patrons complimenting each other and being quite cordial. They provided assistance to one another, and their conversation was uplifting. The second concert a week later, however, was that of a popular musician, of the rock genre that generally occupies today’s top 40 lists. The concert lasted a total of 20 minutes, because within that time, the audience’s behavior had deteriorated to the point where police were required to shut it down. Between these two concerts, the variable was the music.
For me, the fruit of a piece of music are the thoughts and emotions that I have while listening to it. Does it make me feel “to sing the song of redeeming love” about which Alma spoke so eloquently? If we are to remember the Savior always, as we have covenanted to do, does our music point us in that direction? Notably, “always” certainly includes during our “down time.”
Now, a final word about the product of what we put into our bodies: what comes out. “Not that which goeth into the mouth defileth a man; but that which cometh out of the mouth, this defileth a man” Matt. 15:11. I would be remiss if I did not pause for a moment at perhaps the most well-known music-related verse in modern scripture:
“For my soul delighteth in the song of the heart; yea, the song of the righteous is a prayer unto me, and it shall be answered with a blessing upon their heads.” (D&C 25:12). The second clause carries two implied questions. “…[T]he song of the righteous is a prayer unto me…” First, is what we are singing a song? Second, are we the righteous of which the Lord is speaking? If the answer is affirmative on both counts, then our expression in that moment is a prayer. Song plus righteous equals prayer. Now we turn to Jesus’ counsel regarding prayer: “[W]hen ye pray, use not vain repetitions…” (3 Ne. 13:7).
Is the music that we sing, hum, or play worthy of approaching the throne of God? Or does it consist of vain repetitions? Modern music, like our hymns, uses a chorus to reiterate the core message of the music. Note, however, the marked difference in the sincerity of a hymnal prayer versus one that is less inspired.
Daily, we encounter Sirens. As far as music is concerned, should we walk around with earmuffs or stick our fingers in our ears, singing “I Am a Child of God”? No, of course not, but we can fill our less public time with uplifting music that, when we find ourselves in public situations, will come to mind and heart, and become that prayer of the righteous in our heart that the Lord spoke of.
It is my prayer that we will allow the tender prompting of the Spirit to appeal to the divine elements of our nature in how we choose to score our lives. Who knows, perhaps when we stand at the judgment bar, the movie of our lives that plays may not be a silent vignette of pivotal moments, but rather accompanied by the music that we have listened to.
I know the Savior lives, and this is His Church, and His work, and His glory, to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man.
In the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.
(One of my favorite children’s movies has the main character providing his own soundtrack as he works on a great and promising project.)
When we choose what we listen to, it’s like we are standing at the refrigerator, staring with the door open. We aren’t necessarily hungry, but just looking for something to chew. And so, we settle for sugar, even if the lyrics are somewhat bitter.