Taking religion out of Music

It happened again the other day. Someone posted a thing about doing a piece of music in the classroom. A student complained about the religious nature of the piece, and everyone came to the rescue with their arguments.

“Our music comes from a historic tradition that was religious. Just by doing the music doesn’t mean that we are advocating for the religion or proselytizing.” It wasn’t long before people were bringing up the NAfME position statement on the topic (I don’t disagree with it, by the way). And, I just got weary of the whole thing.

The basic argument is that there is artistic value in a piece of religious music that can be strip-mined out of the sacred context of the piece. Once the artistic ore floats to the surface, we just skim that bit off the top for the students and leave everything else to the private life of the kids.

I’m not sure that it’s really fair to take someone’s work that far out of context. I think that I mean, if you take all the content out, you risk that students don’t actually experience the work itself. Instead, they will just be wandering through some sort of shedded exoskeleton imagining the blood and guts that used to be on the inside.

Obviously, this brings up a multitude of issues, but to get at the issue I’m trying to explore, do a quick thought experiment. Someone writes a piece of music arguing for the systematic oppression of women. (It’s actually not that hard to imagine in today’s political climate!) The choir director goes in and says, “Our music comes from a historic tradition that was misogynistic. Just by doing the music doesn’t mean that we are advocating for the subjugation of women.”

I don’t know what the solution is, and I’m certainly not advocating that every Middle School teacher in the country be allowed to bring their specific religious agenda to the table. The flying spaghetti monster would be let loose if we did something like that. I’m just saying that if someone like Bach is making a specifically religious statement, it seems to do violence to the work to suggest that you can pull the religious part out of it. In the same way that is would seem to do violence to a work that had a specifically anti-religious statement by causing it to function in a religious context.

Then again, I’m all about artistic freedom, so I don’t know exactly how to untie the Gordonian knot, and I would love to hear your thoughts.


Originally published at hear.musicspoke.com.

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