The truth is, this applies to a lot of people.
Converts struggle with this. FFBs who listened to non-Jewish music struggle with this.
But not everyone.
People with certain kinds of "souls" (for lack of a better word), people very attached to music—they struggle with this the most.
What's going on?
And what can you do about it?
Problems of the Musically Sensitive
You probably have a music sensitivity and some kind of music background.
For example, ever since I can remember, certain songs moved me & I felt compelled to listen to the same such song again and again—even hours in a row (if possible).
I loved watching musicals, both on TV and in real life.
I loved participating in school singing performances, and later in high school, I ended up in both concert choir & jazz choir, where I was too shy of my very real voice limitations to desire a solo, but thoroughly enjoyed myself in the background vocals.
Among other baalei teshuvah, I met many people with an even more intense music background (including impressive talent with vocals & musical instruments, or opera performances, etc.).
We all struggled with detaching from the favorite music of our pre-frum days, while we simultaneously felt critical of a lot of frum music. (Some of it we loved, but some of it earned complaints of the singer hitting flat notes, and so on.)
Another problem ended up being frum music that was too secular.
Being sensitive means that you're very aware of the emotions & sensations & memories music arouses in people.
You're very aware of the root of different kinds of music.
The combination of holy passukim with certain types of music seems blasphemous—but you're the only one who notices. (Although this sensitivity can be exactly what saves you in the end, as you'll see further on in the post.)
You hear some rabbis say that it's okay to take secular music and put it to frum lyrics.
(Not everyone holds like this, but some do.)
Yet you, knowing how manipulated modern music is and knowing what does to you inside, say, "How on earth can anyone say that?"
Even worse (to the musically sensitive, anyway) are the rabbis who say that it's okay to listen to non-Jewish songs when you don't understand the language, and therefore cannot understand the lyrics.
Not that it's a good thing, but that it's permitted.
And you're like, "WHAAAAAAT???!!"
No WAY. How can that be?
Musically sensitive people identify strongly with what Rebbe Nachman of Breslov said in Likutei Moharan I:3:
Behold, whoever hears the melody of an evil musician, that person finds the service of the Creator difficult. But when he listens to a kosher & virtuous musician, then it's good for him...when the musician is wicked, he derives his melody from other "birds" that are in a klippah [a spiritually impure "shell"].
This leads to an inner tug-of-war because we feel both the attraction & dopamine-release of the non-kosher music even as we feel its impure source.
To compound things, it's hard to find people who understand your struggle.
You're the outlier.
The Frum Secular-Music Lover's Dilemma
But even that ain't necessarily so.
In recent years, frum music created songs portrayed as sung to Hashem, but the lyrics strongly resemble non-Jewish high-tempo love songs.
Meaning, that if a non-frum person heard the song without being told anything about its background, they might think it's a song about "her" and not a song about Him.
On one hand, you feel you need this because there's nothing like that beat & tempo ingrained into you your entire life.
On the other hand, it's so disturbingly secular.
And there you are: caught between a rock & a hard place.
What Does Music Do for You?
For a lot of people, certain music comforted them when nothing else could.
Certain songs soothed or distracted them when trapped in times of pain.
Certain songs validated them. Some song lyrics describe EXACTLY how you feel or what you dream of, or they perfectly capture a certain mood or situation.
(Embarrassing as it is to admit this, I could happily listen to hours of sad songs from the 80s without interruption. I don't know why I enjoy that so much, but I do. However, I don't actually do it. But if I did, I would enjoy myself thoroughly.)
Certain songs speak to your heart's wishes. For example, songs about child abuse sung in a compelling manner (especially by a child) really affect people. For a lot of formerly abused people, it reflects their desperate wish to be seen & be rescued, it makes them feel less alone, and so on. For others, it reflects their sorrow over the helpless plight of many children.
Recently, a song sung in Arabic by a little boy who pleads with his father to stop beating him, has (for obvious reasons) captivated the Arab world. It is also quite popular in Israel among Jews (which is how I heard about it). With a stirring tune & a sweet, plaintive voice, it's understandably compelling.
Another facet of music is its capacity to energize.
Many people feel that their favorite music energized them and made them happy like nothing else could.
Another facet: Certain songs make people feel like they're doing something because it brings out feelings of compassion & caring.
So when popular celebrities sing a well-arranged song in which they pretend to care about unfortunate people ("We are the World," "Feed the World"), this creates a feeling of unity when listening to it: We care! We're in this together! We feel compassion for those less fortunate!
Ooh, and NOSTALGIA. Songs that bring out nostalgia in you? VERY compelling for some reason.
Hearing music that accompanied you through meaningful moments in your life can take you back to those memories & recapture those meaningful emotions & sensations back then.
In a nutshell, music lovers look to music to transport them to a more desirable state or they look to music to enhance their current state.
(And, as discussed further on, very real changes take place in your brain as you listen to your favorite music.)
What Hides Behind a Love Song?
"You're here; there's nothing I fear"—can any human being really provide such security?
Only Hashem can really create a situation in which you literally have nothing to fear.
"You are mine, forever love, and you are watching over me from up above"—clearly sung to a loved one who already passed on, but eternal love (and anything else eternal) can only come from Hashem.
And only Hashem is watching you from up above.
I remember listening to a jazz cassette after I hadn't listened to secular music for a few years.
My first reaction while listening to a singer go on about how she wanted a kiss that would shoot her into outerspace and show her springtime on Jupiter & Mars was: "Ugh. So DEMANDING. And what to you have to offer the relationship, you demanding little snip?"
If you crave to see springtime on far-off planets, you really need to turn to Hashem with such a big request. There's no human way to facilitate that with current technology or any kind of slobbery smooch.
Whether the song celebrates the fantasy superpower of love or whether it expresses yearning for rock-solid everlasting love, it all emanates from the soul's yearning to connect with our Creator.
So we really need to channel any desire for such songs to Hashem.
If we do that, we can create something truly beautiful & everlasting...and MUCH more gratifying.
What about Neutral Songs?
Songs about hope, songs meant to encourage. Songs about friendship.
Many contain beautiful words & concepts without a hint of anything inappropriate.
What's the problem?
So...I don't want to harp on that so much because everyone is holding in a different place. If you've been listening to garbage, then non-Jewish songs about friendship are a huge step up.
But let's say a song encourages you to "walk on with hope in your heart and you'll never walk alone."
Hope is an emotion.
You can also say that if you walk on with a pizza-craving in your heart, then you'll never walk alone.
That's also an emotion.
Hope, pizza-craving...it's the same thing: an emotion.
But if your heart hopes to Hashem, then you really won't be walking alone.
Yet if you just hope for a better day? A second chance?
An atheist also hopes.
Better lyrics are:
- "Walk on with God in your heart...
- "Walk on with emunah in your heart...
- "Walk on with mussar in your heart...
- "Walk on with Tehillim in your heart...
- "Walk on with Mesechet Gittin under your arm...
...and you'll never walk alone."
Or songs about friendship, for example.
Again, they're much better than all the depraved stuff.
However, for future progress, it's worth noting that a lot of neutral songs & those about friendship also emanate from a desire to cleave to Hashem.
"I'll stand by you even in your darkest hour; won't let nobody hurt you"—again, only Hashem can really be there for you in your darkest hour.
And as for not letting anybody hurt you?
Well, even the strongest, bravest friend cannot protect you from, say, an incoming grad missile or a North Korean dictator or social upheaval.
What about Spiritual Songs?
However, some exist.
In particular, country-western music features such songs.
One country-western song starts out with questions indicating the beginning of a crisis in faith, then soars into the chorus taken from Tehillim, with the humble acknowledgement that "I wasn't there the day you filled up the mountains."
The singer expresses acceptance of God's Wisdom over his own understanding.
"Or let there be peace on Earth and let it begin with me," which also declares that God being our Father makes us all brothers.
It's all sounds so nice.
So again, without harping on it too much & making people feel like they shouldn't even bother dealing with their non-Jewish music affinities...
...one problem is whom the singer addresses.
Is it the God of Avraham? The God who gave us Torah from Sinai? Great!
Is it another god? A god who redacts promises & plays games with Biblical laws? A god who plays switcheroo with whom he designates as his chosen people?
If so, then that's problematic...
Also, the singers themselves usually lack integrity.
Along with the humble song to God, their album probably features raunchy songs too.
And many of them, even the singers of religious music, lack scruples. They get divorced repeatedly, they cheat on their spouse, chase addictions, they aren't so honest with money, or they engage in other wanton behavior.
Even if avoiding such music is not where you're holding now, the idea of music's impure source is just something to be aware of, even if you can't apply it to yourself right now.
So, for example, if you'd like a frum substitute for neutral or spiritual songs in English, here are some suggestions:
- WeR1 (“We are One")—This stirring song features Jewish singers from Israel, England, France, Australia, and America (Gad Elbaz, Refael Mirila, Alliel, DeScribe, Nissim Black). The catchy tune and uplifting lyrics make you want to hear it again and again.
- Mercy by Nissim Black. This is one of the rare songs in which he actually sings (as opposed to rapping) and he sings really well. The lyrics express so compellingly the desire for personal growth & Hashem's Compassion, plus the melody is very moving.
- Ari Goldwag—Ari’s music is all about encouragement & inspiration. I particularly like his acapella Smile and his catchy Chanukah Light.
- Stand Up for Each Other by Simcha Leiner. This song comes down hard against bullying while promoting unity & empathy. The last 2 minutes of the song feature a choir of 1000 young Jewish boys singing from all over the USA & Canada.
- This is Your Time by Yaakov Shwekey. And Cry No More. Both are moving ballads sung in English.
- For women, you have the frum singer Kineret, who is now better known as Rabbanit Kineret Sara Cohen. She has a big Broadway-type voice, which is my favorite kind. I think you can only get her music at her Ohel Sara website, and I believe you must sign up so that her music will only go to female listeners. (She really doesn't want men listening to her.):
You can also sample traditional Jewish songs sung by professional Chassidic choirs—or any of the acapella music sold for the times we aren't supposed to listen to music. These possess some real gems you think you won't like, but will be surprised to discover how much you immediately love them!
Should You Just Toss Everything Out?
I've done it and it was very good...each time I did it! (Yes, more than once. Ha-ha.)
Out of sight–out of mind often works better than most people like to admit—especially since you now have similar music with frum lyrics, like sad songs, ballads, dance music, trance, rap, etc.
The problem today is that whatever you toss out can still be found on the Internet, so that method doesn't work as well as it used to. (Although that depends on your filter too, whether your filter blocks you from accessing ye olde secular music.)
The other drawback is that if you live in an area where you face constant exposure to your beloved secular music blaring out at you from cars & malls, then you might feel constantly tempted by something you cannot have.
If you feel ready to throw out your secular music, then that can work really well.
For example, as you progress spiritually in your life, you may start to feel a new disgust with your old favorites.
You may gain a new awareness of how repugnant or how just plain stupid the lyrics are (like my jazz experience).
Personally, I'm very into avoiding direct confrontation with the yetzer hara and instead, continue on my happy journey of inner growth & allow an innate repugnance toward non-Torah material to develop naturally over time.
It's more authentic & effective.
(For example, you can learn about my Shabbat-reading development here: What is the Most Painless Path to True Teshuvah?)
But really, it depends.
Sometimes, just tossing everything is best, sometimes it's best to do it in stages, or whatever.
That depends on you, where you're holding, and your personal situation.
Don't be Hard on Yourself; Music Attacks Your Brain
They arrange the opening chords & other parts of the song so that when you peruse radio stations or hear the song blasting out of a passing car, it hits your brain in a way that makes you want more of that song (and also just one reason why all pop music sounds the same).
Furthermore, people feel energized by the dance-beats in fast-paced pop music. It energizes & provides emotional release in a way that almost nothing else does.
If you grew up with this & like it, it's very hard NOT to crave it.
Massive amounts of frum music embrace this fast-dance music with its popular beat. I don't think it's emotionally or spiritually healthy, but I admit that I also really crave this music at times and listen to the frum stuff.
I do it much less than ever, but still haven't made a full transition from the music (the frum version of it). I don't know if I ever will, to be honest. It's very, very compelling.
And it's meant to be compelling.
People honestly do not realize how manipulated everything is in the secular world.
Each beat, each lyric, the emotional tone & expression—it's all carefully calculated for maximum impact.
In constrast, Laura Ingalls Wilder (1867-1957) of Little House on the Prairie once wrote that nothing got her feet tapping like the 1894 hit A Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight:
Late last night when we were all in bed,
Old Lady Leary left a lantern in the shed.
Well, the cow kicked it over, and this is what they said:
"There'll be a hot time in the old town tonight!"
FIRE! FIRE! FIRE! FIRE!
A catchy tune with a fast banjo, it can't compare to the powerful beat & wild music of today (although it does have the stupid lyrics of today's music.)
Or the Spanish-language hit, La Bamba.
I loved the jazzed-up version popular in the Eighties. Yes, the Spanish exchange students at my high school informed us they thought it was a stupid song because the lyrics were nonsensical and egotistical ("I'm the captain! I'm the captain!").
But I didn't know Spanish & enjoyed the song for the music.
Yet upon hearing the original, I felt so disappointed.
This was the big hit of 1958?
It sounded so pale & limp & noisy (like background staticky noise) compared to the jazzed-up version of the 80s.
But regardless of what music you like, studies show that your brain releases dopamine when you anticipate the part of a song you really like.
The brain neuro-chemically reinforces the peaks of euphoria stimulated by the song—the same process of neural response to drugs or other addictive substances.
That's why we keep coming back for more.
So if you struggle to detach from your favorite music, no matter how awful & blasphemous its lyrics & messages, the reason you struggle is because they arrange the music to hit your brain in a certain way, and this "hit" is reinforced by repeated listening throughout the years.
And even if you like older stuff (i.e., before the modern fine-tuned manipulation), frequent reinforcement has trained your brain to achieve euphoria when listening to it, even without the extra manipulation.
...you can't hate or berate yourself for this.
It's a process & any baby step you take is really, really good.
A Story of Music's Strong Grasp
During the Holocaust, the Underground Resistance hid her in a convent, along with many other Jewish girls.
While the convent took decent physical care of the girls, most of the nuns were abusive, particularly toward the Jewish girls.
Chanah suffered emotionally & spiritually throughout her years in the convent.
However, Chanah possessed a beautiful singing voice and loved to sing. Her hours in the convent choir gave her much-needed enjoyment & comfort.
In addition to the pretty melodies & music, the religious lyrics also spoke to her (though not the specific references to a trinity, but to God in general).
When finally rescued after the War & taken to a refugee center for Jewish children & teenagers, Chanah flourished in the frum Jewish environment.
She loved singing in Hebrew & Yiddish, and learned new Jewish songs.
Yet every night after she and her frum roommates lay down to sleep, Chanah sang the choir songs to her roommates.
She simply couldn't let go of the music she became conditioned to love during her years in the convent.
However, when Chanah finally received her certificate to go to a religious community in Eretz Yisrael, her close frum friend begged Chanah to turn over a new leaf and restrain herself from singing the choir songs. Speaking from the heart, Chanah's friend said (page 303):
"Chanah, promise me that you won't sing any more songs from your convent choir...You are going to Eretz Yisrael, the holy land, and you need to be pure. You mustn't sing songs whose source is impure, even though you like them."
Look at the pull of music...
Chanah grew up in a loving frum home with frum singing.
Her years in the convent were full of misery. The Nazis wiped out her entire family except for a couple of distant cousins.
Yet when she finally rejoined her people—and the home for Jewish youth was run by very caring, nurturing people, plus her peers there were also very nice & caring—Chanah struggled to let go of the church music, even though she remained fully aware of its source.
So we see from this example (and many others) how normalcy of the emotional attachment to music, even when we know its source is not compatible with who we really are.
You could just toss out all your stuff. (See above.)
However, you might find yourself craving the music during hard times, even years later.
You might get "hit" when you hear the music coming from cars or neighbors.
As noted above, it's often most effective to simply fill yourself up with good stuff (or at least, basically kosher music).
You get yourself used to (and hopefully hooked on) kosher music, and you put the non-kosher music aside.
Also, as you continue in your Torah-learning & listening to shiurim, the good stuff you imbibe starts to make the bad stuff feel uncomfortable. It simply doesn't jibe with the constantly renewing New You.
Eventually, the non-kosher music starts to sound bad. Maybe there'll still be a couple of exceptions, but you'll for sure start getting fed up with the inappropriate lyrics.
And even frum music that copies non-kosher music too closely starts to sound unappealing.
It's a process & you can't be too hard on yourself about it for all the reasons explained earlier in this post.
Finally, it's very good to ask yourself what lies beneath your pull toward a particular song?
Are you looking for comfort? A lift? Reassurance? To recapture a certain moment or time in your life? The feeling of connection?
You can talk this out, create a mind-map or a freewrite about it, or just let your thoughts free-flow on the topic.
These are spiritual desires that really indicate a longing for connection with Hashem, with your soul, and so on. (I heard this from rabbis & rebbetzins throughout the years. It makes so much sense.)
Music creates an emotional shortcut to the desired emotional states.
But if you get down to the nitty-gritty of what your pull toward a certain song or music is telling you, you can uncover a whole new layer in yourself, a deeper level of self-awareness & self-discovery that provides you with newfound wisdom beyond the whole issue of music.