January 22, 2021

Augustine’s Inner Conflict about Music

By Chaplain Mike

Music has always been a matter of contention in the church. We’ve been talking about that with regard to current “worship wars” and “revolutions” in church music. That is NOT what this post is about.

No, I want us to think about another conflict with regard to music in the church, one about which I hear little. It is the conflict within the individual about what music does to him or her and whether or not it is leading a person toward or away from God. Somehow this discussion has gotten lost as we’ve been preoccupied with the other battles.

Oh sure, there are those voices out there that rail against certain styles of music, warning Christians that we are opening the door to the devil if we listen to music with a backbeat. But rarely do we hear people ask the question, “Is my relationship with music itself good for me?”

What does music do to us? for us? Is there any way in which it acts against our best interests when it comes to our spiritual formation and relationship with God?

Music was not always as ubiquitous as it is now. Music is with us today from morning until night, a constant soundtrack, either in the background or accessed by us through a plethora of media devices. It is all music all the time, and this is made possible by our technology. Many have commented on the loss of silence in our modern lives. There is a steady background noise even when we don’t facilitate it and beyond that, a seeming commitment to constant sonic stimulation that has even infiltrated and taken over our approach to Christian devotion and worship.

St. Augustine (AD 354-430) long ago, in a much quieter age, pondered the place of music in his life. In his classic Confessions, he meditates on “the delights of the ear” as he considers the various “lusts of the flesh” and how he deals with them. I would like us to read this passage today and discuss our responses to it.

Augustine, Confessions
Book 10, chapter 33

I used to be much more fascinated by the pleasures of sound than the pleasures of smell. I was enthralled by them, but you broke my bonds and set me free. I admit that I still find some enjoyment in the music of hymns, which are alive with your praises, when I hear them sung by well-trained melodious voices. But I do not enjoy it so much that I cannot tear myself away. I can leave it when I wish. But if I am not to turn a deaf ear to music, which is the setting for the words which give it life, I must allow it a position of some honor in my heart, and I find it difficult to assign it to its proper place. For sometimes I feel that I treat it with more honor than it deserves. I realize that when they are sung these sacred words stir my mind to greater religious fervor and kindle in me a more ardent form of piety than they would if they were not sung; and I also know that there are particular modes in song and the voice, corresponding to my various emotions and able to stimulate them because of some mysterious relationship between the two. But I ought not to allow my mind to be paralysed by the gratification of my senses, which often leads it astray. For the senses are not content to take second place. Simply because I allow them their due, as adjuncts to reason, they attempt to take precedence and forge ahead of it, with the result that I sometimes sin in this way but am not aware of it until later.

Sometimes, too, from over-anxiety to avoid this particular trap I make the mistake of being too strict. When this happens, I have no wish but to exclude from my ears, and from the ears of the Church as well, all the melody of those lovely chants to which the Psalms of David are habitually sung; and it seems safer to me to follow the precepts which I remember often having heard ascribed to Athanasius, bishop of Alexandria, who used to oblige the lectors to recite the psalms with such slight modulation of the voice that they seemed to be speaking rather than chanting. But when I remember the tears that I shed on hearing the songs of the Church in the early days, soon after I had recovered my faith, and when I realize that nowadays it is not the singing that moves me but the meaning of the words when they are sung in a clear voice to the most appropriate tune, I again acknowledge the great value of this practice. So I waver between the danger that lies in gratifying the senses and the benefits which, as I know from experience, can accrue from singing. Without committing myself to an irrevocable opinion, I am inclined to approve of the custom of singing in church, in order that by indulging the ears weaker spirits may be inspired with feelings of devotion. Yet when I find the singing itself more moving than the truth which it conveys, I confess that this is a grievous sin, and at those times I would prefer not to hear the singer.

This, then is my present state. Let those of my readers whose hearts are filled with charity, from which good actions spring, weep with me and weep for me. Those who feel no charity in themselves will not be moved with my words. But I beg you, O Lord my God, to look upon me and listen to me. Have pity on me and heal me, for you see that I have become a problem to myself, and this is the ailment from which I suffer.

• from Saint Augustine, Confessions, trs. R.S. Pine-Coffin (Penguin, 1961) 238-239.

To summarize, in this confession Augustine says:

  • He once enjoyed music so much that it might be said he was beguiled by the beauty of music, almost addicted to it.
  • God set him free from that, however, he continues to enjoy music, especially hymns because these texts, mixed with music, increase his devotion.
  • Nevertheless, as a Christian, he finds it hard to find the “proper place” for music in his life.
  • He recognizes that it helps him have greater devotion when God’s words are sung, but he also recognizes that certain forms of music simply stir him up emotionally and “gratify his senses.”
  • He also recognizes the tendency, on the other hand, to overreact to that and to be overly strict with himself, denying himself the pleasures of music.
  • He concludes that there is a legitimate place for music in the church and expresses his longing to always delight more in the truth that the music conveys than in the mere stimulation which music itself gives him.

What are we to make of Augustine’s confessions about music?

Is he just being too, well, Augustinian? too introspective? overly scrupulous and too strict with himself? too worried about “the pleasures of the flesh” and not recognizing a proper place for true enjoyment of sensuous (in this case musical) pleasures? Is he over-thinking this? being too prudish?

Or is he right to maintain some caution with regard to music? Is it recommended for us to likewise evaluate what a sensuous experience like music does to us, our spiritual formation, and our relationship with God? Are Augustine’s thoughts here an example of how the Spirit guides and trains us to use our freedom wisely?

Finally, how do Augustine’s thoughts apply (or not apply) in our ongoing discussion of worship music in today’s church?


  1. There have been a few times in recent years when I decided to “give up music” for Lent or Advent. The rule in this case was not no music at all, just no secular music. I made it through the designated time period, but it was hard. Really, really hard. I couldn’t bring myself to go to the gym at all, work seemed to drag on forever, and it was even harder to get out of bed in the morning without playing some music to wake my brain up. I love music of all kinds, but it is addictive, and can be hugely difficult to go without – which I reluctantly have to admit means I should go without it more often.

  2. Cedric Klein says

    If I haven’t seen a over-exaltation of music both among non-Christians (try suggesting to a teen that he turn down the music or examing its substance or lyrics) & Christians (try suggesting that God might be worshipped in other ways that a 30-minute happy-clappy singathon), I’d dismiss this a hyper-Platonic nonsense & contrast this with the Psalms constant entreaties to “Turn ‘er up!”

    • Cedric, I tend to have the same reaction. As a Lutheran, I imagine how Luther might have responded to these words (though he treasured Augustine’s theology)—I think he probably would have used several choice words in criticism of of anyone who saw music as anything less than God’s gift, to be enjoyed heartily and without reservation. And I tend to agree with brother Martin—c’mon Augustine, lighten up and have a beer while we sing together!

      What makes it tricky for me now, however, is the pervasiveness of music, and particularly the public noise and the private soundtrack that is being piped through every building and through the headphones of people constantly everywhere. Is it possible that this may be one key component of “amusing ourselves to death” (to steal Postman’s phrase)?

      • I would have agreed that Augustine seems to be too strict, but he’s (obviously?) reacting to whatever version of the “Jesus is my boyfriend” tunes the Church in Hippo had at that time – there must have been some performances of church music that were exactly that, performances, and composers seeking novelty rather than fitting the words to the tune. Composers in the Middle Ages and early Renaissance used popular songs as bases for church music, which was acceptable, up until (as one anecdote has it) a guy wrote a Mass using a ‘pop song’ that (amongst other things) praised young women’s breasts – kind of like a new worship song being written to the tune of Sir Mix-a-Lot’s “Baby’s Got Back”. The Church cracked down immediately, and if it had’nt been for Palestrina (allegedly), polyphonic music in church would have been a goner.

        He does acknowledge that he could be too strict, both with himself and with forbidding music in c hurch, so there is a recommendation there for the ‘happy mean’ – good music is a delight, but the purpose of music in church is to complement, not replace, the message. If you’re more fussed about the ‘high’ the music gives you, or too stringent about what you will listen to, both are failures.

        So for the likes of me, I *should* grit my teeth, stop rolling my eyes, and sing along with the happy-clappy stuff 🙂

        • Source of anecdote quoted above: this series, (forward to about 34 minute) , Lassus and “Entre vous filles de quinze ans” by Clemens non Papa 🙂

        • WenatcheeTheHatchet says

          Polyphonic music didn’t quite go away but it underwent a sort of scouring period that might be likened, though this analogy stretches things radically, a kind of “socialist realism” that was in both counter-Reformation music and in Protestant music. Both Protestant and Catholic leaders felt that polyphonic music had gone too far but there were a lot of different ways of reacting to the excess. This still didn’t keep William Byrd from privately writing his Catholic choral music, it was just dangerous to try publishing it too prominently. Palestrina might be likened to a Renaissance Shostakovich dealing with some crazy-strict rules and managing to make some great music despite that.

          I think that where older battles over music may be instructive and where CCM may have landed us (again) in some weird spots is distinguishing between music that is pleasing and music that is liturgically useful. Ironically the rock/pop arena venue worship music may have the same basic problem that labrynthine Renaissance polyphony had, the music was so complex only professionals could pull it off and the music was useless for encouraging congregational participation.

    • just 30 minutes? I used be part of 90-minute sets, often 2 of em back to back. I totally hear Augustine on this one too, at least for the matter the way it’s used in church.

  3. This reminds me of H.L. Mencken’s quip about Puritanism – “the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.”

    It seems that we simply have a hard time escaping our utilitarian roots as Christians sometimes and simply just enjoying the gifts God gives us. Personally, I see this little passage by Augustine to be along the lines of the thinking of the elder brother. I guess we can all fall into that trap.

    I’m also reminded of G.K. Chesterton’s quote – “It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.” Our inability to simply enjoy the beauty in music, art, or whatever is related to our jaded hearts and cynicism. I have a hard time imagining a situation where a child who is engrossed in a piece of music starts asking himself if he’s gone overboard. No, he’s simply caught up in the moment.

    • Well said, and (see my comment above) I tend to come down on the side of freedom here. But there’s this nagging sensation that says we’re facing some different issues with regard to music in our day that Augustine’s words may help us address…

      • I think you are right on at least two counts.
        1) leaning to the side of freedom is a pure winner when dealing with such subjectivity of response; There is music that I used to really get off on that I just can’t listen to any more, and some that I can. I’m sure this varies from person to person, and maybe from year to year.

        2) it is always the right time to ask OURSELVES: how is ( ) affecting me in my walk with Jesus ? the problem comes when what is NOT permissable for me (ZZ Top’s La Grange) becomes a religious vendetta against whatever genre you want to put ZZ Top into. I appreciate the fact that you would ask the hard questions, and make us wrestle with the tension with what is lawful vs. what is helpful.

        Another good question (for me) is “am I using (fill in the blank) as some kind of anaesthesia for pain, frustration, etc. INSTEAD of the Holy Spirit and prayer. I think I even use christian music for this: is it the lyrics of Third Day I’m tracking , or the drug like jolt of “Consuming Fire” ??? Hmmm.

        • “the problem comes when what is NOT permissable for me (ZZ Top’s La Grange) becomes a religious vendetta against whatever genre you want to put ZZ Top into”.

          Good point. Genre-denounciations and ‘guitly by association” arguments are intellectually lazy and do much harm.

  4. I think the key is that ALL things must be done with discernment because of our sinful tendency to misuse or abuse even the holiest things. Who can argue that our sense of taste and good food aren’t wonderful blessings to be enjoyed? But there IS such a thing as gluttony and we have to be discerning in our use of food. The line that crosses from proper to improper usage is something that is almost certainly a perpetually changing one and open to debate, but I think that the major issue with music in evangelicalism is not to even recognize the potential as Augustine discusses that there is something going on that is inherently fleshly and not spiritual.

    • It’s interesting to look at the neuroscience behind addiction and compulsion. Sometimes we tend to have the idea that if someone is over-indulging in something, they must love it too much. That’s really hardly ever the case. Sure, I’ve met some fat people who do love food, but when you talk to most overweight people, most of the time it’s as if they are slaves to the food. So I suppose we can become slaves to anything, and as the Apostle Paul said, that simply isn’t who we are to be anymore. There is a weird dynamic at play in many of these things we consider pleasurable. If we become hedonists, we soon find ourselves at their mercy. As far as how it relates to music I have a hard time seeing it, but I suppose that some sort of compulsive behavior is possible.

  5. Mike,

    Thanks for bringing this up. I have started, but never finished, The Confession, and have not seen this quote before.

    I admire Augustine for many things, including his introspection and over-thinking. If he is wired differently than most of us, that does not mean we cannot learn from him. Surely he should be applauded, not censored, for trying to work out the effects of music on his life before God, not simply either condemning or approving it. And I can certainly empathize with his vague feeling that sometimes music is a pleasant distraction, or worse, an anesthesia to blunt soul-pain that should instead be healed.

    The more mainline classical understanding of music, in my opinion, is the antidote to this concern. That is, the goal of training the man or woman is to not only have right thoughts, but appropriate feelings for those thoughts. That is, we must train the emotions (or, better, the affections) just as we train the mind. And in this training, music has an invaluable place (along with stories).

    In my case, that means I avoid songs or music that makes me feel good about what is essentially a lie (such that adultery is life-giving or drinking heroic). I choose to listen to songs that train my emotions to (sorry to put it so childlike) be happy about the truth.

    The incredible amount of music not only available to us today but practically forced on us is both a blessing and a curse in this regard.

    • I like your description about training the emotions. Great point.

      • Then you might like this quote from C. S. Lewis’, The Abolition of Man. Lewis is writing in the context of education, but I find it a helpful guide to music, which does indeed have a mysterious connection to the emotions Augustine alluded to

        “St Augustine defines virtue as ordo amoris, the ordinate condition of the affections in which every object is accorded that kind of degree of love which is appropriate to it. Aristotle says that the aim of education is to make the pupil like and dislike what he ought. When the age for reflective thought comes, the pupil who has been thus trained in ‘ordinate affections’ or ‘just sentiments’ will easily find the first principles in Ethics; but to the corrupt man they will never be visible at all and he can make no progress in that science. Plato before him had said the same. The little human animal will not at first have the right responses. It must be trained to feel pleasure, liking, disgust, and hatred at those things which really are pleasant, likeable, disgusting and hateful. In the Republic, the well-nurtured youth is one ‘who would see most clearly whatever was amiss in ill-made works of man or ill-grown works of nature, and with a just distaste would blame and hate the ugly even from his earliest years and would give delighted praise to beauty, receiving it into his soul and being nourished by it, so that he becomes a man of gentle heart…

        This conception in all its forms, Platonic, Aristotelian, Stoic, Christian, and Oriental alike, I shall henceforth refer to for brevity simply as ‘the Tao’. Some of the accounts of it which I have quoted will seem, perhaps, to many of you merely quaint or even magical. But what is common to them all is something we cannot neglect. It is the doctrine of objective value, the belief that certain attitudes are really true, and others really false, to the kind of thing the universe is and the kind of things we are. […] And because our approvals and disapprovals are thus recognitions of objective value or responses to an objective order, therefore emotional states can be in harmony with reason (when we feel liking for what ought to be approved) or out of harmony with reason (when we perceive that liking is due but cannot feel it). No emotion is, in itself, a judgement; in that sense all emotions and sentiments are alogical. But they can be reasonable or unreasonable as they conform to Reason or fail to conform. The heart never takes the place of the head: but it can, and should, obey it. “

  6. Chaplain Mike,
    I thought WE were overly rational!
    I think he was just a product of his time–like all of us. He seems preoccupied with Mind/Body dualism instead of Mind/Body integration. We need to just relax and enjoy our own favorite music and not view it as a means to an end.


  7. Dana Ames says

    This is one of the few times I agree with Augustine, at least about what music is in church.

    We have to understand that people in the ancient world thought that the different tonalities and harmonies there are actually do something to a person’s insides. While I would not take it as far as they did, (or go back to what Gothard taught), my training in music and my experience both testify to that being so. Some keys are simply “bright”, others more pensive. It even makes a difference when playing in flats as opposed to sharps, though you might actually be playing all the same notes. It’s interesting. I’ve seen it in concert settings (the band YES is masterful at this) and also in worship.


  8. Radagast says

    I have mentioned this before – I love music – it can swirl around me, get my endorphins going and engulf me. When heard in a Christian setting it is the same feeling, But do I feel the way I feel because I love God and that I am praising and Worshiping him? Or am I simply reacting like I have always done to the music and its effects on my appetite, feeding my senses, my need. I think that is what Augustine is talking about – we don’t do away with music, we just make sure we understand what it is and if it is your drug with God as the wrapper, then you are still using it for your pleasure. If you can keep it in perspective then it is a useful, edifying part of worship.

  9. I confess that I love music.

    I have “eclectic” musical tastes(drove to work with Green Day, then listened to Amadaeus soundtrack, then James Taylor, U2, Rush, and now listening to Pantokrator). I can llisten to music between meetings at work so long as it doesn’t distract me(on my Skullcandy headphones). Sometimes there is background noise in cubicle land that I have to drown out in order to concentrate. So this is a big one for me: if I couldn’t listen to music at work, I would have to get up and take breaks every half hour or so. It helps me stay focused. I rarely get the chance to listen to music at home – little ones running around want me to play – that the only time on weekends I listen to music is when I work out in the yard – again to stay focused.

    Augustime has some thoughts around the content of the music that are interesting, but none that I haven’t dealt with before. We should have caution is what we allow ourselves to listen to – I can use Overkill as an example. Love the music, but the lyrical content and f bombs….got rid of that. If a CD has the sticker – I generally avoid it. But that’s me. If I listen to to f bombs – I find myself thinking and then sometimes dropping some of my own. If someone else can listen to the same music and it draws them into the Throne room, then who am I?

    George Will – “The angels play Bach’s music around the Throne of God, but when they get off on their own, they jam with Mozart.”

  10. An interesting piece Chaplain Mike. Not sure where the “especially hymns” came from though. In the music wars it is conveys much more meaning than you probably intended. If they were singing Psalms, then perhaps it lyrically looked similar to what we sing today.

  11. For me, music can become a distraction. It competes for my attention, especially at work. If I have a hard problem to solve (I’m an engineer), music always distracts me and reduces my efficiency. I think that’s an area where music ought to be limited. Our responsibilities are more important than music. I’m sure even David put down his lyre when there were wolves around.

    Like Ambrose, Augustine believed singing in church was for teaching doctrine. Now, we say it’s for “preparing our hearts”, whatever that means.

    I don’t think Augustine’s point is to dismiss any style of music. No matter the style, he believes it a sin to be moved by music and not words. And he’s calling his readers to agree with him. Which I tend to do, especially on this point.

    Another thing he says is that music is most moving when the words are sung to an appropriate tune. That, I think, is something too often forgotten. Singing a minor-key truth in a major key grates on my sensibilities. If music is for teaching doctrine, our preaching would be dysfunctional if we sing Psalm 88 to the tune of Yankee Doodle.

    I often hear phrases or ideas sung by the congregation which the pastor would not preach in a sermon. Sometimes, it confuses the doctrine which the pastor is trying to preach. At worst, it makes it seem as though the pastor and the music minister are at odds. And it makes it clear that no one’s paying attention to the meaning of the words.

    • Mike,
      I agree with you very much that words and music should match and not be inappropriately paired.

      The other point you refer to and which I agree Augustine seems to be emphasizing in this passage about it being a sin to be moved by the music and not the words, I tend to disagree on, however, as a general rule. I hear it said frequently in choirs, for example, that “it’s the words that count.” If that were the case, we’d just read the words aloud and never sing or have music. We’d just read the story behind the painting or stained glass and never let the art itself tell us that story. To me, the music, painting, sculpture, etc are appropriate media in and of themselves without words for worship—-the important thing is that they are not “neutral” and can be very definitely designed to evoke appropriate or inappropriate responses or affections in the listener/observer. Having a stripper come to a church and do a pole dance is an art form that evokes inappropriate responses in the observers, regardless of whether she has John 3:16 written on her clothes or skin. Similarly, I think that different kinds of music are designed to produce inappropriate responses even if Christian words are being sung. It’s not a question of classical vs rock—it’s the type of affection being created.

      So long as the appropriate affection is created for worship of the divine, I would disagree that it’s a sin to be moved by the music.


  12. I think in a worship service setting music should be used as a tool to teach and preach the Gospel regardless of style being used that is merely personal preferance. Also at the same time I see nothing wrong with enjoying music as well and doing it well and passionately. God is a wonderful artist and created all things for his glory and for his good pleasure. Being creative ourselves is a gift from God and one I think we should enjoy to the fullest without reservation regardless of the art form. I think the line would crossed in a worship service setting when the focus is placed more on the musicians or the show or production aspect of it then conveying the Gospel message to the Church. then music can or may become a distraction for some. However feeling emotions or being moved emotionally by music is not bad even in a church setting. We are emotional people and if we say feeling them when music is played is bad then you would have to write out all emotion in everything we do period. Even when Augustine wrote the confessions he felt emotion and passion about what he was writing or when you read your Bible and are touched by the Grace and love of Jesus you feel emotion. If you are alive emotions are simply unavoidable. So why be afraid of them. I’ve always said, “Worship should not be driven by emotions in anyway but should drive our emotions in everyway!” You are proclaiming the Gospel so do so loudly and with passion there is truely something to be said in that message so do it boldly and joyfully!

  13. By the way Im not a touchy feely emotional person either. I just feel there is always an issue with music no matter where you go in Churchs. To emotionally drive, to bland, to loud, to quiet, makes me to sad, makes me to happy, blah, blah, blah. I feel the style should be relevent to the culture the church is in and should be used as a tool to teach doctrine and proclaim the Gospel outside of that I believe we have freedom to do what you will. If Christ truelly is the focus everything else wont really matter.

  14. Doesn’t this also speak to the idea that sin involves not only indulging in the forbidden, but also FAILING to enjoy and apprepriate the gifts God has placed in front of us?

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