“Is there such thing as an evil sound?”

That question, one of the most interesting I’ve been asked, was posed by a young musician named Kevin Max Smith at a lecture I gave in Nashville to a group of rock musicians who were also evangelical Christians. Smith was with a band called DC Talk, which started out as a rap group then switched to a mixture of styles. But many genres were represented in the room, including heavy metal, which is usually not associated with Christianity.

Smith’s question cut to the heart of the ancient view of music, older than Christianity, that I call didactic. The ancients ranked musical sounds in a hierarchy understood to be causally related to the hierarchy of human virtues and vices, in the soul and in the polity. Says Socrates in Plato’s Republic, “Never are the ways of music moved without the greatest political laws being moved.” Confucius, incidentally, said something similar: “If you know whether a people are well governed, and if its laws are good or bad, examine the music it practices.”

I respect this didactic view because it represents the powers of music. These powers range wildly. At one end of the spectrum, music has the power to soothe, to calm, and to “sing the savageness out of a bear,” in Shakespeare’s words. At the other end, music can also drum the savageness back into the bear. Flaubert had this in mind when he wrote sarcastically, “Music makes a people’s disposition more gentle: for example ‘The Marseillaise.'”

This is why the ancients sought to control the effects of music. Allan Bloom summarizes Socrates’ teaching with his customary eloquence. “The taming or domestication of the soul’s raw passions,” he writes, must not mean “suppressing or excising them, which would deprive the soul of its energy” but rather, “forming and informing them.” The trouble comes when we try to apply this wise abstraction to actual music. To do so is to shoot at a moving target, because Western music has long been violating Plato’s specific prescriptions.

For example, Plato taught that too much music confuses the mind and distracts from logos. The Hebrew prophets took the same view, which is why early Christians spurned the rich instrumental homophony of pagan music in favor of a spare vocal monophony—a single melodic line sung without accompaniment. But during the late Middle Ages, the monks in Notre Dame began to interpolate new sections of chant containing more than one melodic line. The switch to polyphony, or harmonic counterpoint, gave birth to the glories of Western music.

To put my point in a nutshell: we may believe that Bach and Mozart are good for the soul and good for the polity, but we should also keep in mind that they violate quite promiscuously the specific rules set down by Plato.

Where does that leave us? Disinclined, probably, to issue any specific decrees about musical sounds. To the question posed above, “Is there such a thing as an evil sound?”, my initial response is “no.” No sound by itself is evil. Sounds that are harsh, ugly, or disturbing can be used in aesthetically and morally admirable ways. And the sweetest, most pleasing sounds can be put to evil uses. So it’s a matter of how the sound is employed.

If we look at contemporary music in Socratic terms, and ask how well it is forming and informing the raw passions of individual souls and of the polity, what to we see?

To judge by the opinion of many experts, we see a stratified musical landscape in which some people listen to “serious” music, others to “popular.”

* * *

For some critics of our democratic culture (Allan Bloom again), the mere existence of vulgar music exerts a fatal and irreversible downward pressure on the soul, the culture, and the polity. It’s a persuasive argument, if all we look at is Mozart on the one hand, and the grossest and most offensive popular music on the other.

Which is pretty much what Bloom did in his famous chapter on music in The Closing of the American Mind. He focused on the stuff that Tipper Gore went after in those famous Senate hearings of the mid-’80s: rapaciously violent heavy metal, hardcore and punk bands out to shock what was left of the bourgeoisie; Madonna in her underwear phase; Prince at his most priapic.

I, too, have criticized this vulgarity. But I also contend that the vilest strain of popular music—and of popular music in general—arises less from ordinary vulgarity than from cultivated perversity.

American popular music has not always been vile. On the contrary, certain strands of it, notably popular song and jazz, have achieved worldwide distinction in a century when so-called serious music embraced rationalism, mathematics, noise, and games of chance to the point of cutting itself off from the educated as well as the popular audience.

If you look closely, you see that the most troubling impulses in popular music came from the artistic elite. The process began in the late 1960s, when the counterculture went sour, and rock’n’roll began to attract the sort of people who were less interested in music than in using such a popular medium for their own culturally radical purposes.

Prior to that, rock’n’roll was vulgar, but not culturally radical. It was inferior in some ways to the musical culture that had produced Louis Armstrong, Benny Goodman, and Frank Sinatra. But rock also shared many positive traits with the older musical culture, such as a stance of old-fashioned courtesy toward the audience. That persisted into the mid-1960s in soul music, Motown, and the early Beatles.

Then came the transformation. Concerning Mick Jagger, Bloom’s instincts are right on target. Jagger’s stage persona does express a kind of pop-Nietzchean erotic liberationism. The Rolling Stones relished the blues, especially the rough-edged Chicago blues. But coming from the hothouse atmosphere of British art colleges, they also turned the blues into a vehicle for shocking the bourgeoisie.

More drastic was the transformation wrought by groups marginal at the time but since lionized. Inspired by cutting-edge visual artists and avant-garde theater, Frank Zappa, Iggy Pop, Alice Cooper, and the New York Dolls put on stage shows that resembled “happenings” more than concerts. In turn, they helped to inspire punk, the 1970s phenomenon that was, and is, a form of performance art, not music. The pure legacy of punk, which pervades gangsta rap as well as much of alternative rock, is a cult-in-your-face attitude and (in punk, at least) musical incompetence.

Does this stuff have an unhealthy effect on our souls and our polity? It’s hard to argue otherwise. There may be no such thing as an evil sound, but we live in a culture very skilled at using all sorts of sounds to create evil effects.

The film soundtrack is a great example. Consider how directors like Quentin Tarantino combine cheerful upbeat music with grisly violence. In Pulp Fiction he used Al Green, Kool & The Gang, surf music, Dusty Springfield, and the Statler Brothers to accompany the happy hit men’s splattering of blood and guts over everything—a gimmick that creates instant irony, a feeling of detachment from mayhem that is ever so 20th-century.

Quite different is the soundtrack for Natural Born Killers. For that film about two young slackers who go around blowing people’s heads off, director Oliver Stone asked the industrial rock band Nine Inch Nails to create an accompaniment that, in my judgment, comes close to being evil. Younger readers will recognize it as neck-breaking mosh pit noise. Older readers will imagine a stealth bomber forcing its attentions on a threshing machine.

But even so, I can think of good uses for this sound. Scenes of black despair and chaotic passion have their place in great art. Remember Oedipus gouging out his eyes? Or Medea butchering her children? Nine Inch Nails could handle those moments.

Thus I am not issuing any decrees. I do not wish to live in a didactic culture, one that believes and acts on the notion of a one-to-one correspondence between auditory stimuli and characterological effects. That has been tried, and somehow the guys in charge are never philosopher kings.

* * *

The worst stuff is still out there, attracting the vulnerable and being defended by pundits and academics who ought to know better. But for people coming of age today—Generation Y, if you will—there is also incredible ferment, as technology brings all kinds of music to all kinds of ears.

The situation of having every variety of music at out fingertips is part of what is meant by postmodernism. The received wisdom, on the right as well as the left, is that this puts everything on the same debased level. I disagree. I think it gives the audience a chance to compare the good with the better, the bad with the worse.

To say this is, I realize, to express far more optimism about democratic culture than the ancients might regard as wise. But consider the positive aspects of the case. Taking the long view of American culture, music included, what do we see?

We see a systematic rejection of snobbery, because snobbery says that to be knowledgeable and cultivated you must be the manner born, and most of us are not. But at the same time we see a lot of people who acquire knowledge and cultivation by hook or by crook—and then play it down—because they know that the best way to learn about others is to surprise them by not fulfilling their expectations.

We see the widespread belief, against expert opinion, that there do exist fairly objective standards of excellence in the arts: a stubborn tendency to stand in awe of Rembrandt, and to tell the kids that if hey don’t practice, they won’t be able to play like Itzhak Perlman or Artie Shaw.

Finally, we see the conviction that there is such a thing as morality and decency in the arts, and that to be shocked and offended by their blatant violation doesn’t make someone a prude or a philistine.

Every kind of audience has its vices. Personally, I find the vices of the democratic audience preferable to those of the elite. Tocqueville, who wrote about the arts in America but sadly failed to mention music, observed that “In democracies, the springs of poetry are fine but few.” I’m inclined to turn that around and say that while the springs of great music in America have been few, they have also been very fine.