Tuesday, February 14, 2012

What kind of music gives you chills?

One of the most-read stories on the US version of the Wall Street Journal in recent days has been "Anatomy of a Tear-Jerker," by Michaeleen Doucleff, which analyzes the elements in Adele's song "Someone Like You" which appear to be tailor-made to produce strong emotional reactions in listeners.

The story concludes that "researchers have found that certain features of music are consistently associated with producing strong emotions in listeners. Combined with heartfelt lyrics and a powerhouse voice, these structures can send reward signals to our brains that rival any other pleasure." The article tells us that such songs include
at least four features. They began softly and then suddenly became loud. They included an abrupt entrance of a new "voice," either a new instrument or harmony. And they often involved an expansion of the frequencies played. In one passage from Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 23 (K. 488), for instance, the violins jump up one octave to echo the melody. Finally, all the passages contained unexpected deviations in the melody or the harmony. Music is most likely to tingle the spine, in short, when it includes surprises in volume, timbre and harmonic pattern.
What other songs share these same elements? Many of the songs of crooner Chris Isaak seem to fit this description. So does the 1992 Guns n' Roses song "November Rain," which also features two screaming guitar solos by Slash and a music video containing imagery surrounding emotion-laden environments such as weddings, funerals, and windswept deserts with stark lonely churches. If you know of songs that consistently give you chills or other similar reactions, head over to the Mathisen Corollary on Facebook or Twitter and share them!

Researchers have found that "When the music suddenly breaks from its expected pattern, our sympathetic nervous system goes on high alert; our hearts race and we start to sweat. Depending on the context, we interpret this state of arousal as positive or negative, happy or sad." Knowing how to manipulate the sympathetic nervous system with the vibrations of music and proportions such as octaves is exactly the kind of knowledge that John Anthony West says the ancient Egyptians consciously sought out, in his book in Serpent in the Sky: The High Wisdom of Ancient Egypt.

The Wall Street Journal article asks, "If 'Someone Like You' produces such intense sadness in listeners, why is it so popular?" We explored this same question previously in "Why do we listen to beautiful music about heartbreak and misery?"

Happy Valentine's Day!