This website introduces Experience of Music, a new research exercise which aims to gather data regarding emotional, psychological and spiritual responses to music.


To go directly to the surveys, please select Congregation > or Concert Audience >



About Experience of Music, from Jonathan Arnold, principal investigator

Experience of Music aims to gather data regarding emotional, psychological and spiritual responses to music performed in a variety of concert and liturgical settings in order to ascertain the relative proportion of religious, or theistic, responses to music in comparison to emotional/aesthetic, non-theistic, responses, and the interaction/relationship between the two.


This study will seek, through sociological methods, to find out the views of audiences and congregations and discover who is listening, and why, to different styles of classical music. This will involve canvassing the opinions of large numbers of people who attend concerts or services by means of a survey, as well as more in-depth interviews with some. The methodology for this study is outlined below >


With experience of nearly two decades as a professional singer with choirs such as The Sixteen, a contributor to the BBC TV documentary Sacred Music and as a distinguished author, Senior Research Fellow and ordained Anglican Chaplain, I propose to offer a new and challenging work for the general reader and specialist alike asking why Christian sacred music, perhaps more than ever, appeals to such a wide and varied audience, of both religious and secular listeners.



About Jonathan Arnold

 The Revd Dr Jonathan Arnold was raised in Herefordshire, attending Hereford Cathedral School before coming up to Oxford to read Theology at St. Peter’s College in 1989, where he also took a keen interest in music, joining the choir of Magdalen College Chapel for two years. From Oxford he trained as a singer at The Royal Academy of Music, from where he became a Vicar-Choral (singing bass-baritone) in the choir of St. Paul’s Cathedral for eight years. Jonathan also performed as a soloist with many leading British and European orchestras and has sung with many fine vocal ensembles, including The Tallis Scholars and The Hilliard Ensemble. He was a regular member of The Sixteen for fourteen years, travelling all over the world and appearing on many recordings and broadcasts. In 2007, Jonathan appeared in a five-part television documentary on sacred music with the actor Simon Russell Beale and The Sixteen.

 It was during his time at St. Paul’s, however, that he met and married Emma, and completed his doctorate in English pre-Reformation Church history at King’s College, London. He trained for ordination at Ripon College Cuddesdon from 2003 and was curate at Chalgrove, south-east of Oxford until 2008. He continues his interest in Church history by researching and publishing regularly. In 2007 he published a biography of John Colet, Dean of St. Paul’s (1505-19) and, in 2011, published The Great Humanists, an introduction to the Christian humanists of pre-Reformation Europe. In 2009 he was appointed Senior Research Fellow at Worcester College and, in 2010, Fellow of the Royal Historical Society. He combines his historical research with an inter-disciplinary interest in music and theology and instigated a new seminar series for Oxford on ‘Music and Theology’ in 2014, in which year he also published Sacred Music in Secular Society (Ashgate), a musical, theological and social study of the role of sacred music in western society. In 2014 he was also co-founder of a new girl choristers’ choir for Oxford, Frideswide Voices, which is the first choir in the history of the university to offer girls, aged 7-13, the opportunity of being a chorister and singing services in Oxford College Chapels.


Praise for Sacred Music in Secular Society

‘As both a sacred musician and a scholar of historical theology, Jonathan Arnold is uniquely qualified to write this lucid and informed book. He tackles one of the most mysterious and fascinating questions in the area of theology and the arts: what is it about music that still appeals so vividly to modern people's sense of the spiritual? He explores this question in an engaging, open, accessible and enthusiastic way, bringing his own insights into conversation with some of the best-known composers, performers and theorists of sacred music at work today.’

Ben Quash, King’s College London, UK

'Jonathan Arnold explores the phenomenon of sacred music as a potent force, whether heard in its liturgical setting or the concert hall, to lead us beyond ourselves to the transcendent and the numinous. His thought-provoking survey draws upon the experience of those who create sacred music as composers or performers, whether as people of profound, uncertain or no faith, providing rich insights into the compelling mysteries and beauties of this treasure trove of music.’

John Scott, Organist and Director of Music, St Thomas Church, New York City, USA

‘An intriguing, fresh look at the existence and role of music and its sublime effect. What is it that is so special about sacred music?’

Ralph Allwood, Director, Eton Choral Courses

‘A valuable contribution to the study of sacred music in our world today.’

Stephen Layton, Trinity College, Cambridge, UK

‘…stimulating and through the various interviews, offers many insights into the place of Sacred Music in Secular Society.’

Music and Liturgy

‘Something concurs between music and the spirit. This book offers a series of vistas upon that concurrence. It also contains some heartfelt expressions of thankfulness for it, and is likely to leave the reader adding his or her own.’

Church Times




The basis of research will be a wide-ranging social survey, which will gather findings from audiences who attend concerts of western classical music, as well as congregations who attend cathedral and church services. Attendees at a number of classical music events will be invited to take part in the survey, which will be available in paper form as handouts as well as online, via this dedicated website and the websites of those organisations involved.


In order not to confuse different types of event and different styles of music with each other, the context and repertoire will be closely monitored.


The questions will aim to discover several demographic aspects of the audience or congregation, such as age, gender and religious background; they will also aim to ascertain how an individual responded to a particular concert, piece of music, or music within a church service, and thus build a broad picture of trends in audience perception and reception. Each survey will also give individuals the opportunity to write down how they felt or experienced the music in their own words.


In addition to this social survey and the resulting statistics, I will also undertake some in depth interviews with individuals, in order to gain a sense of how listeners articulate their experience of music. These interviews will not be with professional theologians, musicians or performers, but, as far as possible, ‘ordinary’ members of the audience or congregation with no particular specialism relating to these fields of study.


Once the information has been gathered, both from the survey and the interviews, I intend to place the findings within a framework of theological reflection. In order to achieve this aim, I shall engage with recent scholarship on the theology of listening, by authors such as Jeremy Begbie, in his Music, Modernity, and God: Essays in Listening (OUP, 2013), in which he argues that ‘Music … is capable of providing a kind of ‘theological performance’ of some of modernity’s most characteristic dynamics.’ I will also relate my findings to the theology of Joseph Ratzinger on music and theology, an author with whom I did not engage in my previous work, as well as the theological reflections in a new volume of essays, edited by Ingalls, Landau, and Wagner, Christian Congregational Music: Performance, Identity and Experience (Ashgate, 2015).


In order further to contextualise and analyse the data found, I shall also be relating the material to ritual studies, such as the Experience of Worship Project, headed by Prof. John Harper, www.experienceofworship.org.uk. Such studies combine a rigorous analysis of how people experience worship and how liturgy in performance is as ambivalent and polyvalent for both those who deliver it and those who receive it. This ritual study will be compared and contrasted to the experience of attending a concert, and all that it involves for the audience.

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About Music and Theology at Oxford

Experience of Music is one of the research activities being pursued under the aegis of Music and Theology at Oxford, a group convened by Jonathan Arnold, Matthew Cheung Salisbury (Lecturer in Music),  and Carol Harrison (Lady Margaret Professor of Divinity) within the University of Oxford. There is a regular seminar series in Oxford which attracts students and senior members alike who are interested in connections between the disciplines: subjects discussed range widely, from historical studies to contemporary perspectives. Music and Theology at Oxford is part of the International Network for Music Theology.