The Secret Chord

Martin Wroe
3 min readAug 19, 2023

On how music heals us and the melody of community. For BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, guest edited by The Dunbartonshire Concert Band.

Tomorrow morning there’s a good chance more people in England will be singing outside church than inside.

They won’t be singing Amazing Grace but Sweet Caroline or Football’s Coming Home… and whatever the result of the world cup final in Sydney, the singing will do everyone good.

It’s a small wonder to be caught up in a great swell of human voices, all trying to ride the same melodic wave.

Even when some of those singing with you are… a little flat or discordant.

That doesn’t really matter, when you’re lost in the music and carried by the song.

The words don’t have to be deep and meaningful and, even if they are, we don’t need to buy into them — like those who visit church only at Christmas, just for the joy of singing carols.

It’s about the shared experience.

More and more of us join community choirs or amateur concert bands not in search of excellence but in a quest for participation.

The melody of community.

And music embeds itself deep in our emotional memory. Either playing, or listening, is a kind of time travel, which can instantly transport us to some decisive moment in our life.

The language of music reaches us beyond words and takes us by surprise. It ambushes our complacency and breaks down our defences.

Sometimes it will heal us.

The Bible records the story of an anxious monarch called Saul who was haunted with psychic turbulence… until his therapist suggested summoning the musician David, famous for playing the harp.

‘That would calm Saul down,’ as one translation puts it, ‘and he would feel better as the moodiness lifted.’

It was this story that inspired Leonard Cohen, in his most famous song:
Now I’ve heard there was a secret chord
That David played and it pleased the Lord

During lockdown my always humming and singing wife would join online choir practices conducted by Gareth Malone — and then ring up my mum, so she could also sing along by phone.

Music became a bridge across the divides of isolation.

Hearing is thought to be the last sense to go at the end of life. A few weeks back, at my mum’s bedside in her final days, I put my phone near her ear and played her a male-voice choir singing Bread of Heaven.

I guessed she would remember the hymn from long gone days in a Welsh chapel — or from my dad, standing up to sing it in front of the telly, when Wales were playing rugby.
‘When I tread the verge of Jordan,
Bid my anxious fears subside…’

And we noticed as any fears did subside, as music did what it does. As it connects us in life and in death. As it heals us.

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Martin Wroe

‘Trying to get to heaven before they close the door.’