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The sound of music

07 December 2012


THE Christian Church - better than that, the Church of England - lay at the heart of How Music Makes You Feel (BBC1, Tuesday of last week), one of Alan Yentob's "Imagine" series of personal explorations. The hook on which it hung was the phenomenon encountered in a previous programme, when he underwent a brain scan while listening to Strauss's Four Last Songs. The consultant was amazed by the result: the whole brain recorded neural activity, almost overloading the machine.

Music clearly reaches the parts other sensations cannot reach, and the film sought to discover why that should be so. Generously, while also exploring the effect of disco music, Yentob volunteered that a place where people still regularly experienced the power of sharing in music was in church worship, and chose the Revd Lucy Winkett and her church - St James's, Piccadilly - to investigate.

As a trained musician, Ms Winkett has that rare quality of knowing what she is talking about. She directed attention to another location where the phenomenon was still enjoyed - the football terrace.

The Kop, at Anfield, was recorded singing "You'll never walk alone" with a fervour that is rarely encountered at Sunday evensong - but this did flag up a weakness in the programme. Singing, and music generally, does not just engage our feelings: good music excites the intellect, enlarges the gates of perception, and envelops us in overwhelming emotion. I have been pondering this mystery - I have been exposed recently to the kind of church music that I normally avoid, from which every dimension other than vacuous feeling has been removed - but Yentob's attention focused mainly on emotions, and what he called "spiritual" experience.

Academics and experts were consulted, and we saw some moving film of how babies engage with music, and also how those locked into Alzheimer's can be awakened into dance and song by the power of music. Overall, this felt more like an illuminating exploration of the phenomenon than a clear exposition of a thesis explaining precisely how music exercises its primordial power.

The Church came out less well in The Secret of Crickley Hall (BBC1, Sunday). Only when it was too late to change their course did the vicar wake up to the terrible goings-on at the orphanage. Its deranged owner had taken to heart biblical injunctions about bringing up a child in the right way, which he interpreted as a liberal application of the cane, especially on a refugee child, doubly responsible for his load of sin because, being Jewish, he was implicated in the death of Jesus.

The psychic echoes of the tragedy were awakened, 60 years later, by a family who sought to come to terms with the loss of a child. The atmosphere of ghostly presence lay like a miasma over all, and, I suppose, as a parable of eventual redemption and closure, the Lord's day might seem an appropriate place for such a fable; but the strongest impression was bemused wonderment at how the BBC could have thought that this was a strong enough novel to deserve the prized Sunday-evening slot.

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