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Music to emote to

05 October 2012

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MUSIC can make it to the status of Soul Music (Radio 4, Tuesday of last week) for any number of reasons: it was the song you danced to the night you met your future spouse; it was the aria that a parent requested as a dying wish.

The incongruity of musical associations is demonstrated by the recent reception of Spem in alium, by Thomas Tallis, which, as a result of the novel Fifty Shades of Grey, has become the motet of choice for all with an interest in sado-masochism. How music affects us is a subject of almost limitless scope.

That Soul Music gets no further than recounting anecdotes relating to its featured works is more an observation than a criticism. This is not the place to be analysing the psychology behind people's emotional responses to music. And yet, in last week's programme on Bach's St Matthew Passion, it would have been interesting to hear more about why so many listeners claim to "burst" into tears at the sound of Blute nur, or Erbarme dich.

What exactly are they weeping for? Are these the pious tears of the faithful, grieving for man's cruelty and the predicament of our Lord? Perhaps - but one doubts that this medieval sense of compassion is the primary mover.

James Jacobs, whose mother died in a car accident when he was a child, came closest to expressing something of the power of Bach's music, and, indeed, most music for some people - some at special times: that it dignifies and ennobles the confusion, the psychological mess that we experience at significant times of our life.

Perhaps this explains why, as the guitarist Andrew Schulman described, the music of Bach has such a noticeable therapeutic effect on the patients that he visits. It worked for him. "I couldn't live without Bach," he declares; and, in his case, it is more true than for most, since it was Bach's Passion that coaxed him out of a critical coma. Whether or not you believe in the miracle of Christ, it is hard to deny Mr Schulman the veracity of what he and the hospital staff call the "St Matthew miracle".

The task for Melvyn Bragg's guests on In Our Time (Radio 4, Thursday of last week) was to analyse the metaphysical in a somewhat more rigorous fashion - although, in itself, it is a miracle that 40 minutes of national radio should be devoted to the ontological argument.

It may not be quite as cool as it was in the 11th century, or even during the Enlightenment, but the ontological argument still gives philosophers a gentle frisson. In particular, the underlying ambition to link concepts and reality is one that continues to fascinate; and, in particular, the final contribution by Clare Carlisle in this programme presented an inspiring defence of the argument, not as an a priori proof of the existence of God, but as an exploration of the uniqueness of the Creator as an entity, which, by his nature, entails the very essence of being.

Her appeal to the mystery and mysticism inherent in the argument may not be exactly what cool-headed Anselm had in mind, but it nevertheless provides another kind of template for thinking about the age-old question of God's attributes. As for In Our Time: can a greater talk-show, aimed at the serious intellectual dilettante, ever be conceived?

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