Both of us love music, although only Alicia plays it. In our musical family, Mike likes to say that he plays the radio! But we’re not alone in this: most people love music.
We are among the first generations of human beings to have music available to us at the touch of a screen, something most people in history didn’t have.
Music today is more powerful a force than ever, especially since it’s so readily available. We can fill our minds with songs of almost any genre whenever they like.
For years, Alicia has taught music to children from birth to age seven as a certified Kindermusik instructor. We know this for sure: it’s very easy to help children to love music. For one thing, music activates the whole brain! Dancing to music also activates the brain.
It also goes straight to the soul. Live music in particular can pull us into the message that’s being communicated by the artists and musicians, and that can be meaningful, or scary, depending on the music.
Music is a human activity. When we grow up with music, it becomes woven into the fabric of who we are. It’s not “just music.” It’s powerful and it shapes what we think, how we think and how we feel.
In Alicia’s family, both parents were very musical: both of her parents played and sang music and were involved in amateur theater. They gave their kids a rich music tapestry: it was important to them to play excellent music on the best speakers.
They grew up listening to Broadway shows, Carly Simon, James Taylor, folk music, 1950s rock and roll, Michael Jackson, and many, many Christian albums, everything from Amy Grant to obscure local bands. Their house was playing music constantly! But no headphones! Alicia’s parents let them know music was part of the family, not an individual experience to shut others out.
Growing up, there were other kids they knew who were raised in a very conservative Catholic culture that didn’t really involve music. Some of their parents were against all kinds of rock music, including Christian music.
What Alicia and her siblings saw was that many of the teens raised in these houses eventually rebelled and started seeking out and embracing the same objectionable music their parents had tried to shield them from.
By lumping all essentially secular music into one pile and labeling it all “bad,” these parents didn’t teach their children how to sort through the junk.
In short, we don’t know. Similar to how we approach technology, we think that a gradual approach is best, with different rules at different stages. The overall goal should be to teach children how to recognize the power and effects of music, to choose music and to use it wisely.
Let’s start out by saying that when it comes to music, there’s a lot of junk out there. And we’re not just talking about pop music filled with expletives or glorifying casual sex. Broadway tunes, Big Band and jazz, as well as classical pieces can celebrate immorality, adultery, binge drinking, and even violence. (Mack the Knife, anyone?)
Our approach is to give our children lots and lots of good music, of a variety of genres. We want to teach them to judge between the good and the counterfeit. In order to do that, children need to learn to recognize good music by hearing lots and lots of good music.
That doesn’t mean that our kids will always prefer our style of music, but we know that if we give them enough good music, they’ll learn to recognize the true, the good, and the beautiful when they find it.
When kids are young, it’s important for them to listen to kid’s music and the rich tradition of folk music. There are songs every kid should know: songs like “God Bless America,” “The Itsy Bitsy Spider,” and many more! We also play Classical Music for Kids (great series!), and sacred music. We recognize that childhood is the time for children’s music, and there are so many good tunes that are fun to listen to and even more fun to sing together!
Our house rule is that our kids learn how to play at least one instrument, and try to get them “over the hump” so that they master the instrument enough to play it for their own enjoyment. We don’t expect them to be professionals. Music is for everyone, not just talented people!
If you know how to play or sing, we want to encourage you to share that with your family! That’s the gift of having little kids: they don’t judge you. And they love music. Even if you play (or sing) badly, that can send the message to your kids that you don’t have to be perfect to make music!
And that of course brings us back to praying with music. Music has always been a crucial part of the Catholic liturgy. From the chants of the Byzantine and Eastern churches to the solemnity of Gregorian chant, Catholics have always used music to praise God.
The Church sees the human voice as the most fitting way to praise God, since it was an instrument crafted by God Himself.
So sing to God with your kids! You can start by singing the parts of the Mass with them at home, like the “Lord, have mercy” or the “Lamb of God.” This encourages them to participate in the singing at Mass (and may help you be brave enough to sing louder yourself!).
When you are praying together at home, try using Catholic songs. “Holy God, we praise thy name,” “Holy, Holy, Holy” or “Immaculate Mary” are easy hymns that are in the vocal range of most people and children. These are great songs to sing while having a family procession at home.
We’ve found the best songs use the actual words of Scripture, which is powerful since the Word of God is powerful. And as a bonus, you and your children will begin to memorize the Scriptures that are so much a part of the life of the church.
King David sang the Psalms to express his emotions towards God–everything from joy to fear to sadness to anger to thanksgiving! Jesus and His Mother sang these holy songs as well.
Today, there are many great contemporary renditions of the Psalms and other Scriptures that can help us calm our moods, lift our spirits, or focus our prayer. Try praise and worship channels to discover songs that you and your family can listen to or even sing together.
Our family listens to Christian rock music because we firmly believe Catholics need to keep God on their minds even when we’re not at Church. Sacred music is meant for church but we play upbeat Catholic and Christian songs outside of Mass to relax, to play when we’re working around the house or dancing together for fun.
We also play good secular music, and as our kids grow and become interested in popular music, we introduce them to the best of what we’ve found. Our goal is to help them explore current music with an eye to discovering new gems. There’s music that helps us express emotions, work through suffering, or just have fun! And there’s nothing wrong with having fun.
Although it’s tempting to judge an artist’s music by their lifestyle, we try to avoid it if possible. After all, even the great classical composers were by no means perfect Christians and some failed spectacularly. God uses broken vessels. And there are songs written by people today who aren’t perfect, but who seem to be seeking God and truth.
We do avoid singers who make their living by trashing Catholicism and Christian values like Madonna did in the 80s. If the music communicates dark and disturbing stuff, we don’t listen to it.
We try to guide our teens in choosing what kind of music to spend time with. Emotions are high during the teenage years, and some songs can help teens channel rage, anger, sorrow, or pain–but other songs (or too much of these kinds of songs) can amplify them.
If your teen is struggling with containing their emotions, encourage them to be aware of what they’re spending a lot of time listening to. Help them figure out if their music is helping them deal with emotion or just prolonging it, or making things worse. Except in extreme cases, it’s probably not good to tell them to stop listening to emotionally problematic music. Instead, help them to see that just as they need to watch what they eat and drink, they need to be careful about what they feed their spirits with.
During Lent or Advent, challenge them to unplug from all music and try silence, or sacred/Christian music only.
Not every song we listen to has to be Christian, but it can’t be anti-Christian. That’s just common sense if we believe in Christ! If we or our kids like a good song, we encourage them to look up the lyrics just so they know what they’re bopping around to.
Music is a powerful tool to reach our hearts and lift our spirits. If we are going to be agents of change in our culture, we have to draw upon what’s good within our culture and build on it.
That’s our big approach to music. Our world yearns for beauty, and we can give that to them by singing, playing, and sharing great music with them. It unifies us, it strengthens us, and when used rightly, it gives glory to God. So play on!
You can check out our podcast episode on this topic here!