Is all music a religious experience?

When I was an earnest teenage convert to evangelical Christianity, one of my girlfriends gave me the troubling news that she was going to stop coming to church. Remember that in Evangelical tradition, belief in God is not enough. Only the regular churchgoers were safe. So my conversations with her about this were governed by the pressure I felt to try to convince her to stay with my words (such youthful arrogance!). When I asked her why she was no longer a believer, she said:

‘I realised that I get the same feeling from listening to music that I love as when I’m worshipping.’

Well, that stumped me. Teenage Christian Holly did not have an answer for that.


During the week I went to a concert with my dad, my brother and my husband. It’s the second outing of this troupe, to see a French-Canadian tribute act for 1970s British progressive rock outfit Genesis. The group style themselves ‘the Musical Box’ after one of the band’s songs.

And before you chunter and raise eyebrows at the notion of paying fifty English pounds for a tribute act, they are exceptionally good. The tribute show involves beautifully unnerving graphics, an intricately-timed light show, and they don’t miss a single note of Genesis’ almost obnoxiously technical music. The frontman sounds spookily like original frontman Peter Gabriel (less so Phil Collins, but come on, he’s only human).

The last time we saw The Musical Box was at a much larger venue, but this time we had seats in the first or second circle of London Palladium. If you haven’t been, the Palladium is a beautifully-kept classic West End theatre, complete with plush red curtains and gold-trimmed boxes up the walls displaying the great and good. What was the same was the demographic – middle aged white, 60/70% male. My mixed-race husband was holding it down for the ethnic minorities in a big way. This is relevant, I promise.

So the music begins, and pretty soon we, the crowd, are squarely in the palm of the music.

Genesis’ songs are long and rang-ey, and don’t always return to where they started. But the band’s exceptional showmanship, the lights and atmosphere carried us through. Before the first act was finished, at a song’s soaring crescendo, middle aged men were throwing their arms up from their seats in a way I’ve only seen otherwise in Pentecostal church services.

It was amazing and oddly joyous, being able to see visible signs of the way the music was moving magically through us all. It was a glorious affirmation of the power of music, the communality of it – the way that the music needs an audience in order to direct its electrical charge through something.

It was particularly interesting to me because I’m not sure how many spaces there are for middle aged men to let themselves go, to be seen and moved by something. Football, maybe?


Coming back to my friend from the beginning who lost her faith, though my reaction at the time was concern for her eternal soul, now I think she was making an excellent point. Music and communal singing, dancing and listening have been part of human behaviour for thousands of years, and it often includes an element of euphoria. I think moments of euphoria are essential to our wellbeing. They help us arrive in our bodies and the moment, and, can help us feel connected to others or the natural world.

But outside of religious traditions, how many of us get to experience euphoria, especially in a communal setting? Music is one opportunity. Dance is another. Creators of house and dance music knew this, and create music which builds to an aural and emotional peak (and engendered a culture with a great tolerance for drug-taking, which can also stimulate an ‘artificial’ high.)

On the way home on the tube, we were chatting about the show and we commented that the reactions in the crowd had been like something out of a church service.

“But it is almost like a religious experience.” My father said. Well, pops, I think you might be right.

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