Richard Shumack on taking online guitar lessons during isolation, and what the beauty and power of music might tell us about a Creator.

Previous “Thinking Out Louds” have revealed that during lockdown Justine’s been doing yoga, Barney’s been doing quizzes and Simon’s been doing LOTR. Me? I’ve used my detention for online guitar lessons (thanks Phil Keaggy and Nils Lofgren!)

Apparently, that’s a thing. Music shops have witnessed a surge in new or re-treaded musicians like me.

It’s not hard to see why. Music has been found to carry many benefits. It reduces stress and anxiety. It improves cognition and memory. It motivates exercise and enables expression of deep emotions.

On deeper reflection, music itself is a truly remarkable feature of existence. It has the mysterious, sublime, and sometimes disturbing capability to communicate emotion without words or content. It bubbles out of us, unlooked for, in moments of highest joy and deepest sadness. Like mathematics, it appears to be a real abstract (ie, immaterial) entity of extraordinary intrinsic beauty and vast practical value.

From Plato onwards, philosophers have found the best explanation for why we find the experience of immaterial forms of “organised noises” so deeply, movingly, corporately, majestically, grungily, primordially, indeed preternaturally satisfying is that God composed it into our universe.

Physicist/priest John Polkinghorne cheekily suggests that “If you want to make a materialist reductionist feel uneasy, ask one what he or she makes of music, and insist on a response that corresponds to the actual way one lives and not to an ideologically glossed version of it. ‘Neurological response to vibrations in the air’ seems totally inadequate as an account of listening to a performance of the Mass in B Minor.” Instead, “theistic belief offers an explanation”.

If he could just explain to me why barre chords are so hard to master …