Church and the Pub: Music is the Glue

Eli Nelson 14 February 2020

It’s late evening on a Thursday. You are walking past Queens and over the river – heading towards Newnham.

Just before you get to the bridge, you stop: from the pub on your left you hear a strange sound: a sound that is simultaneously incredibly relaxing and weirdly intense, a fast-moving rhythmic flurry that makes you wonder if you haven’t stepped back a few hundred years.

If a rave could be wholesome, it would sound like this.

Twenty violinists, a drum, a handful of accordions, some mandolins. All in intense concentration, playing folk tunes that are written not on sheets of paper but in their minds, into which they fall as easily as if they were speaking in their mother tongue.

You shut your eyes and are surrounded by the sound, by darkness, and memories of oceans, lochs and forests. At the Anchor Inn, you begin to lose touch with the material world, sinking into a dream state where words dissolve and images swim before your eyes. And then the tune changes, and you are transported upwards – every piece has its second section, the section in which you are lifted into the sky. The world falls away, you’re in bliss – when you open your eyes, you can’t quite believe you are still in a pub.

I have always heard people talk about how music can take us places, and I never really took it seriously, because it had never happened to me. But now I realise it is very much an issue of participation: when you are surrounded by the music, at its heart, something quite incredible can happen.

Music exists in the instantaneous second it is heard – it is important to play rhythmically in time, accurate to the very second of rhythm – but this makes you ‘in time’ on another level.

Through music you can feel time, you feel it around you, both passing and static – and that brings you close to the people around you because you exist in precisely the same moment. A friend told me once that playing music actually can bring your heartbeats into sync.

When surrounded by people who you both know and love, who are all sharing music together, you forget that you care about anything. You are carried by the spirit of the people around you; you become part of something greater. For me this is especially true in Church.

Jesus said that when even two or three gather in the name of God, He is there with them – and this might explain why music is so important. When two or three are gathered, praising in his name, and fully existing moment to moment in praise – then the ego can fade, self-awareness can loosen, and God can show you what he wants to. That Thursday night the Anchor was a kind of Church, just people sharing time divided by the beat, for no reason seemingly other than to just be.

There’s a reason music is an art form that complex societies organise community events and festivals around. Its social function is unparalleled.

It’s a language that lies closer to the world our bodies inhabit than our net of words.

In a world where people can often feel isolated, music introduces a sensory phenomenon everyone is connected by, a connection often visibly shown/evidenced through dance (or a too-cool-for-school head-nod).

The Church is one place where this connection happens.

Unlike music listened to with headphones on a surly bus, the music of worship has an explicit purpose of connection to others and to the universe. I wonder if, regardless of your faith, the practice of worship can tell us something valuable about music more broadly, about its power to connect people to each other and the world, its power to embed us together in time and space.