Did the Vatican Outlaw "The Devil In Music?"

February 10, 2014 | 23 comments

I’ve been playing in rock bands since about 1987, when my father bought me my first guitar. At the time, I was heavily influenced by heavy metal musicians.

Running in these circles for many years, it was not unusual to encounter stories of an oppressive medieval Catholic Church. In fact, many a heavy-metal band wrote songs about this, and the leather-clad faithful were only too happy to assume the stories were true.

Recently, I watched a documentary on the Canadian heavy metal band, Anvil. At one point in the film, the two founding band members recalled their first composition titled “Thumb Hang,” which was supposedly based on a form of torture used by Catholic clergy during the Inquisition.

Of course, no torture like this was ever used. This tale probably comes from what is known today as the “Black Legend.”

One of the more popular stories I encountered about the Church while I was a teenager concerned a certain interval in music known as the Tritone or Flatted Fifth.

At the ComiCon in New York City on October 11, 2012, Kirk Hammett, lead guitar player for Metallica, commented on this movement:

During like the 16th/17th century, the Vatican outlawed it because they called it, uh, the ‘movement of the devil’ or ‘the devil in music’ and you weren’t allowed to write music that had that movement in it…the flatted fifth.

 

Don’t quit your day job, Mr. Hammett.

This claim is at least a hundred years too early in the dating of the term “devil in music,” and there is no evidence that it originates with the Vatican as he seems to imply.

According to one author from the BBC News Magazine:

Many believe that the Church wanted to eradicate the sounds from its music because it invoked sexual feelings, or that it was genuinely the work of the Devil. It is a mythology much beloved of long-haired guitar wizards.

 

Where did the title come from?

The title “Devil in music” (diabolus in musica) has been applied to the interval from at least the early 18th century. Writers from this time, including Johann Joseph Fux, Georg Philipp Telemann, and Johann Mattheson describe it that way.

The latter of these two authors wrote that the designation “The Devil in Music” comes from the past, but they don’t tell us exactly when or appeal to any primary sources. The truth is that there is no historical evidence to suggest that it originated in the Middle Ages as is commonly asserted.

 

Did the Vatican outlaw this musical movement?

Because of this symbolic association of the flatted fifth with the devil by some in the eighteenth century, the interval came to be heard in Western culture as suggesting an “evil” sound. But this was a cultural phenomenon that had nothing to do with the Catholic Church. In fact, there is no evidence to suggest that the Church punished or excommunicated musicians for invoking the interval in their compositions.

The Vatican did exercise control over music used during the mass, and it  does to this day. According to the Vatican II document Musicam Sacram (Instruction on Music in the Liturgy):

It is for the Holy See alone to determine the more important general principles which are, as it were, the basis of sacred music, according to the norms handed down, but especially according to the Constitution on the Liturgy. Direction in this matter, within the limits laid down, also belongs to the competent territorial Episcopal Conferences of various kinds, which have been legitimately constituted, and to the individual bishop. (paragraph 12)

Music in the mass is meant to enhance worship. Therefore, certain types of music are just not conducive to the experience. Hardcore death metal, for example, would be a distraction by calling attention to the musicians and away from what is happening in the mass (not to mention the unsavory lyrics that frequently accompany the genre).

This is the domain of the Church, and as a practicing Catholic I am happy to leave the issue to its discretion. I can enjoy really loud rock music in my garage on my own time.

One thing I know for sure is that I won’t be taking any history lessons or life advice from long-haired guitar wizards.


Jon Sorensen earned his bachelor’s degree in 3D Animation and Visual Communications in 2004 from Platt College, Ontario. Before coming to Catholic Answers, he worked in the automotive industry producing television commercials and corporate video. He has also produced motion graphics for several feature-...

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Comments by Catholic.com Members

#1  Clinton Ufford - Sweet Home, Oregon

Too bad ... I've been listening to Metallica since I was in the 5th grade. Bands like Slayer, Deicide and Morbid Angel are in fact "devil music..." - People should try out bands like War of Ages and Demon Hunter: their Christian metal bands ..

February 10, 2014 at 6:17 pm PST
#2  Julie Clement - Bunkie, Louisiana

You do realize that Anvil is fictitous, and the film along with "thumb hang" is a spoof. It was a less funny version of Spinal Tap.

February 11, 2014 at 7:11 am PST
#3  Jon Sorensen - El Cajon, California - Catholic Answers Blogger

@Jule; No, Anvil is not a fictitious band. They are a real band that started back in 1978. They have 15 studio albums, with the most recent being released just last year.

February 11, 2014 at 8:11 am PST
#4  Will Johnson - Grand Rapids, Michigan

Wow! Wouldn't have guessed anybody at CA was into metal. Cool blog Jon. I've heard about the attitude taken toward the Diminished Fifth (that's what I learned it called). Correct me if I'm wrong, but it was Black Sabbath who started using it unabashedly, which is partly what defined them as the (generally accepted) first heavy metal band. It gave them a distinct "dark" sound that separated them from other bands.

February 11, 2014 at 12:19 pm PST
#5  Jon Sorensen - El Cajon, California - Catholic Answers Blogger

Hi, Will. Thanks for the compliment. I linked to an article from the BBC. You should check it out. It has some interesting quotes from Tony Iomi.

February 11, 2014 at 1:20 pm PST
#6  Julie Clement - Bunkie, Louisiana

My apologies. Any band with an album named Metal on Metal or Juggernaut of Justice could not be real. Mea Culpa!

February 11, 2014 at 3:29 pm PST
#7  Jon Sorensen - El Cajon, California - Catholic Answers Blogger

Lol Julie. Come on! Those are classic album titles. Ha-ha!

February 11, 2014 at 3:51 pm PST
#8  Paula DiSanto - Jordan, New York

"Music in the mass is meant to enhance worship. Therefore, certain types of music are just not conducive to the experience."

I agree that music should enhance worship in church; however what about music in general?

"Hardcore death metal, for example, would be a distraction by calling attention to the musicians and away from what is happening in the mass (not to mention the unsavory lyrics that frequently accompany the genre)."

For example, just the name of the above "music"--hardcore death metal--and the "unsavory lyrics" that indeed are part of this music really have no place in a believer's life. The Bible tells us that as Christians we should avoid even the appearance of evil. God tells us to teach our children about Him when we sit in our house, walk by the way, lie in our bed...basically at all times. If our minds are continually focused on the Lord and are an act of sacrifice to Him, then this type of music really has no place in our lives.

"This is the domain of the Church, and as a practicing Catholic I am happy to leave the issue to its discretion. I can enjoy really loud rock music in my garage on my own time."

I am challenging you to read all the verses in the Bible that talk about music and then also get to know God through His word and see how He wants us to live our lives. Obviously He does not specifically say, "Don't listen to heavy metal," but yet He calls us to live a Holy life and to glorify Him in all of our ways.

Please spend time reading your Bible and getting to know the God who loves you and knows what is best for you--you will have No regrets!!!

February 11, 2014 at 3:55 pm PST
#9  Jon Sorensen - El Cajon, California - Catholic Answers Blogger

@Paula, I was not endorsing "hardcore death metal." I was using an extreme example to make a point.

One relatively well-known Catholic told me once that I shouldn't let my daughter read a particular book that was popular. Meanwhile, this person's favorite show was a less-than-wholesome sitcom on television. It was Jesus who said, "“Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone.”

I'm not particularly scrupulous about music, and not all heavy metal is hostile to the Christian message.

February 11, 2014 at 4:57 pm PST
#10  Cristina Baldor - Miami, Florida

Dear readers:

I feel everyone is very sensitive to music. I attended a short workshop within a Catholic Conference about the influence of today's music. The main thing I would like to share is that music -as we can all agree, affects our mood. The enemy has infiltrated the media in such a subtle & insidious manner that even the most 'innocent sounding' -when you really listen though-not so- today's pop music-of course, metal- to me; Heavy Metal -all of it- just feels angry. I do not want to feel angry or participate with anything or anyone who is. Therefore, I have always instinctually concluded that it is just not for me. I change it immediately. Let's say you are in your car listening to the latest Pop Music- sounds innocent enough, right? You just got off work and you want to hear something light & catchy -something that does not make you feel down or make you think too much. I scan the radio to find that radio station A) Is playing X song about feeling abandoned from a lover. Station B) Is playing maybe Stairway to Heaven, by Led Zeppelin and C) The Eagles song 'Hotel California.'

Maybe you are between B & C you decide. Hmmm...which one? Stairway to Heaven is a classic, you conclude and 'Hotel California' is real cool. Well for moi: None of the above is the song I will tune into. Go To: 89.7 Classical Station. Relaxing, the clean beautifully arranged notes lift my spirit & soothe my soul. Besides, I feel fancy! Certain musical notes bring us down. The lyrics are carefully juxtaposed with 'sweet melodic tunes' to lure us. Or do you not believe that the enemy know who we are? We are not that picky! Oh! But maybe you should be...try listening to the lyrics more carefully of the majority of today's Pop music/metal music is too obvious. If you like it- hey, that is your free choice. But even today's Pop music carries a sadness. A sort of depressive tone in words & melodic tunes. Carrying messages of loss of hope & gloom & doom. Christ is JOY, PEACE & LOVE! Think of Christmas!!! Thanks for listening! Keep your ears sharp & beware- maybe that song you just heard-just afffected your overall mood/thoughts/subconscious/consciousness & you do not even know it! Have you ever found yourself thinking of an old lover/boyfriend you miss but you know may not have been the healthiest for you? But you do it anyway, because many songs are about that. The past is gone. Live the present moment!

February 12, 2014 at 11:44 pm PST
#11  Clinton Ufford - Sweet Home, Oregon

I would suggest that people read the lyrics to most music -- MOST heavy metal, rock and roll, etc - including Led Zeppelins Stairway to Heaven - are not "good music" for Christians. Although the musical talent is superb, the message within the music is not. To each their own. If your on a spiritual journey to draw closer to our Lord, why hinder yourself with secular messages, even if they are sounding good?

February 13, 2014 at 4:04 pm PST
#12  Jon Sorensen - El Cajon, California - Catholic Answers Blogger

Who says the secular message is a hindrance for everyone? I get what you're saying, Clinton, but unless you're only watching EWTN and listening to Gregorian Chant every day, you too are faced with secular messaging at every turn. If you can't handle that, then by all means avoid it. But this is not the case for me and many others. I function just fine and my faith is not challenged by secular music, TV, movies, magazines, or anything else. If anything, being faced with objections to the faith has strengthened my resolve.

February 14, 2014 at 10:25 am PST
#13  Paula DiSanto - Jordan, New York

@Paula, I was not endorsing "hardcore death metal." I was using an extreme example to make a point.

Jon, I never implied that you were endorsing hardcore death metal; I only challenged you to think about the message that it sends and what is going into your brain when you listen to it. Interestingly, children's Sunday school songs incorporate much truth: Oh be careful little ears what you hear.

One relatively well-known Catholic told me once that I shouldn't let my daughter read a particular book that was popular. Meanwhile, this person's favorite show was a less-than-wholesome sitcom on television. It was Jesus who said, "“Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone.”

First of all, I am not a hypocrite as all I listen to is Christian music--on the radio and my iPod. It is funny that when we are convicted the easiest thing to do is to blame someone else. I was not and am not "casting stones." I am only exhorting you to know your bible--God's Word to us. In addition to that read the catechism of the Catholic Church and see how we, as Catholics are called to live.

I'm not particularly scrupulous about music, and not all heavy metal is hostile to the Christian message.

I beg to differ. Have you ever tried asking the Holy Spirit to help you "see" with spiritual eyes that which you taking in? We have become so desensitized in our culture that it is easy to think that things don't bother us or aren't that bad. However, we are called to be in the world and not of it. Jesus kept the customs of his Jewish religion, but he did not fit in with the world at that time nor does he with our time. He even says in the bible that friendship with the world is enmity with God. Once again, I implore you to read the Bible and then blog through the lens of God's word.

February 14, 2014 at 8:00 pm PST
#14  Paula DiSanto - Jordan, New York

If you can't handle that, then by all means avoid it. But this is not the case for me and many others. I function just fine and my faith is not challenged by secular music, TV, movies, magazines, or anything else. If anything, being faced with objections to the faith has strengthened my resolve.

The previous message that you sent to Clinton seems rather combative. You have to realize that when you put a strong message on a site such as Catholic Answers then you are going to receive some pretty emotional responses from people who care about their faith and relationship with God. It is a shame that you answered Clinton with the message which I have copied here. Just because people avoid secular junk does not mean that we cannot handle it. It means that they are choosing a holier path, one that God would be pleased with. Remember that when you are "faced" with or as I call it, choose to, listen to, watch, read, and participate in things that are so called secular (in truth are sin for the Christian) that Jesus himself is the unseen guest at all times. Don't be fooled, God will not be mocked. He is not the man upstairs or your buddy, but a righteous and holy judge. We do have grace and mercy, but not for willful disobedience, until he sees repentence. Once again, I cannot stress enough that you should study your bible and know without a doubt what God expects of you if you call yourself a Christian. Romans 8:1 says, There is therefore now no condemnation to those who walk according to the spirit and not in the flesh. According to the spirit means God's way. There are things that are displeasing to God and are sin--otherwise we would not have to go to confession and repent of our sins. I challenge you to be still and listen for the still small voice of God. See what He has to say about choices in life. Instead of arguing with others, go to the sources--the Bible and the Catechism. See what those say.

February 14, 2014 at 8:11 pm PST
#15  mary martinez - west sacramento, California

In regards to music supposedly being a corrupting force, it cant corrupt unless your intent is to be corrupted. It irks me how non- Catholics think that they know what true corruption is aka EVIL. The so called Christians taking jabs just because we are Catholics and know THE TRUTH are inviting corruption in every time they USE CONTRACEPTION, DON'T BAPTIZE INFANTS, CONDONE ABORTION, CONDONE HOMOSEXUAL ACTS-MARRIAGE, DIVORCE and RE-MARRIAGE (adultery ),..
you see where I'm going. Funny how easy it is for some people to see something like music any type of music as sinful but have no problem indulging in and endorsing the real works of the DEVIL (see above) but I guess its ok so long as you have the "right" radio station playing while you do it. Music is just music. REAL SIN is spiritual death to your soul!

February 15, 2014 at 12:05 am PST
#16  Jon Sorensen - El Cajon, California - Catholic Answers Blogger

@Paula; Allow me to respond.

"Jon, I never implied that you were endorsing hardcore death metal; I only challenged you to think about the message that it sends and what is going into your brain when you listen to it."

I used "Hardcore death metal" in my blog post as an extreme example. I neither listen to it or endorse it. All of your comments have been based on the assumption that I listen to that type of music, but I don't. I only said that I can listen to loud rock music in my garage. I didn't say which kind.

"First of all, I am not a hypocrite as all I listen to is Christian music--on the radio and my iPod."

I have no way to verify this, so I'll take your word for it. I would point out though, that some Christian music contains messaging contrary to Catholic teaching.

"Just because people avoid secular junk does not mean that we cannot handle it."

I was responding to Clinton. He said that the messages in secular music are a hindrance to him. My response was a general one. If anyone, including Clinton, finds secular music to be a hindrance to their faith (i.e. "can't handle it") then they should avoid it. I was agreeing with him there.

Regarding you exhortation that I spend more time in Scripture; I can assure you that I read it every day. As a matter of fact, I feel so strongly about my faith that I gave up a very promising career in commercial television production to work for this non-profit Catholic organization.

God bless you.

February 15, 2014 at 8:20 am PST
#17  Birkir Traustason - Berrien Center, Michigan

Please remember that the Enemy was in charge of music in Heaven before sin entered his heart,,,, and the Holy Bible calls him the great deceiver,,,, since he is an expert in music, i find it VERY likely that he would spend a fair amount of time by deceiving "followers" of Christ regarding music,,,, so my ? is,,,, since "heavy metal rock" seem to be OK kind of music for a christian to listen to and not be affected in a negative way towards growing relationship with Christ,,, What kind of music is off limits for a christian ?????????

February 15, 2014 at 1:50 pm PST
#18  Paula DiSanto - Jordan, New York

Jon,
I will concede that some "christian" music does contradict the Catholic teaching and as I am Catholic, I would choose not to listen to that.
I also am proud of you for giving up a secular career to work for the Lord. I was not trying to be combative but as I also read the Bible everyday (and I have no way to verify that you do, so I will take your word for it) and the Lord is my life, we are brother and sister--on the same team. I was just a little taken aback by my perception that you would think all music is ok--thank you for the clarification.
As the written text, it is hard to "hear" the tone in which it is written. We need to keep that in mind.

February 15, 2014 at 2:55 pm PST
#19  Alan Bradley - Allentown, Pennsylvania

I'm glad someone set Julie Clement straight I get a bit annoyed when people shoot off information that is untrue. Anvil, indeed are a real 'metal' band, one of the best of that genre in that era, and the industry closed the door on them, this happens a lot with Canadian bands especially when it comes to radio play in America, doesn't matter how good they are, they have the Canadian label on their back and they wind up being swept under the rug. Let's take a look at a few other bands who had much more talent than Anvil and a greater positive message who were also swept under the rug, I can think of 2 major ones right off the top of my head... TRIUMPH and SAGA.

Check out SAGA if you have a chance, no anti-Christian lyrics, nothing bad, all good and positive music with highly skilled progressive musicians (see: Genesis, Pink Floyd, Yes etc) here's a radio station dedicated to them -> http://www.saga5.com :)

February 18, 2014 at 8:32 am PST
#20  Kathy Muller - Dublin, Georgia

I was just pondering this. I love classic Rock and Classic country. It's true that a lot of music can set a tone...you know to cheat or drink..not act very Christian like. I have been married 28 yrs..so the words do not affect me..I love my husband..I think for me it takes us back to a much simpler time in life..you remember friends and fun times.

February 19, 2014 at 6:16 am PST
#21  Birkir Traustason - Berrien Center, Michigan

I am still looking for a answer to my ???? if there are any type of music that a Christian should NOT listen to

February 21, 2014 at 9:57 pm PST
#22  Paula DiSanto - Jordan, New York

Birkir,
I would say that any music that causes you to stumble as a Christian or that God convicts you of as sin should be avoided. Aside from that, personal preferences and personal convictions create disagreements as seen through the previous posts here. I guess the bottom line is that we stand as individuals before the judgment seat of Christ and if He has spoken to you about this issue then it doesn't really matter what any person on earth says. Hope that helps.

February 26, 2014 at 3:55 pm PST
#23  Stephen Williams - Kissimmee, Florida

“If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal” (1 Cor 13:1).

March 10, 2014 at 11:47 am PST

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