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open to musical shivers

January 06, 2011

open to musical shivers

Most people feel chills and shivers in response to music that thrills them, but some people feel these chills often and others feel them hardly at all. People who are particularly open to new experiences are most likely to have chills in response to music.

Do you get goosebumps from music? Does the hair on the back of your neck stand on end during your favorite pieces? Then congratulations — you are officially someone “open to new experiences,” according to a study
conducted by researchers at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.

According to psychologists, your personality can be divided into the five dimensions of extraversion, conscientiousness, agreeableness, neuroticism and openness to experience. For the most part, these categories are self-explanatory: extraversion (friendly), conscientiousness (responsible), agreeableness (compassionate), and neuroticism (Woody Allen). “Openness to experience,” however, is a little more complicated.

A detailed and in-depth study of the five dimensions more explicitly parses out the common characteristics associated with openness to experience. They are, in descending order:
Wide interests, Imaginative, Intelligent, Original, Insightful, Curious, Sophisticated, Artistic, Clever, Inventive, Sharp-witted, Ingenious, Witty, Wise

Pretty great, right? Characteristics that are not part of “openness” include:
Commonplace, Narrow Interests, Simple, Shallow, Unintelligent

Oof. I think the two ends of the spectrum can be defined like so: openness=awesome, non-openness=boring. Is that an oversimplification? A little. But is it true? A little.

The more I read about this openness dimension, the less surprised I am by the results of the study. If you are unimaginative and think of things in very concrete terms, it would be much harder to allow your mind to be swept away by the emotional potentials in music. That’s not to say that logic and practicality work against this openness — Bach is about as structured and controlled as they come, but do people still react emotionally to his music? Absolutely. However, with this desire for logic there must be a suspension of the everyday and an acceptance of the what-might-be. There must be a desire to surrender to the journey the music wants to take you on. And isn’t that why we listen to music?

There are particular moments in pieces I love that always give me that little musical frisson down the back of my neck. The first sound of the timpani in Fanfare for the Common Man. The initial entrance of the electric violin soloist (yes, I said “electric violin”) in Adams’ The Dharma at Big Sur. The setting of “though I sang in my chains like the sea” at the end of Corigliano’s Fern Hill. And that’s just classical music. Yes, they’re all 20th century American composers — hey, I know what I like.

In the non-classical realm, I think of the moment the bass kicks in under the solo dulcimer in the intro to Sondre Lerche’s “Stupid Memory.” Or Patti’s LuPone’s version of “Rose’s Turn” from Gypsy, especially when she breaks down with “why did I do it…what did it get me.” Or the modulation in the middle of The Doobie Brothers’ “What A Fool Believes.” And don’t get me started on “God Only Knows” by The Beach Boys. (Just to be clear, I am aware that I have just referenced The Doobie Brothers in an attempt to make a serious point about the complicated nature of the mind/music relationship. But it’s a really good song.)

A different study, conducted at the Institute for Music Physiology and Musicians’ Medicine in Hanover, Germany, delves further into the nuts & bolts of what in music gives you this sensation. They cite three main musical events that often trigger chills:

  • When a symphony turns from loud to soft
  • Upon entry of a solo voice or instrument
  • When two singers have contrasting voices

I suppose you can loosely group my chill-inducing moments into these categories. The Copland and Gypsy moments have a “change in dynamic,” and the Copland, Adams and Lerche sections are definitely triggered by “entry of instrument.” The Corigliano and Beach Boys both fall under “contrasting voices,” as does the song from Gypsy – her voice and tone change on that line, so I think it counts. And, unsurprisingly, The Doobie Brothers march to the beat of a different drummer and fit in no category. Maybe there should be a “modulation” category, especially for non-classical music. Think of a pop song that doesn’t include a modulation. Where would Barry Manilow be if he couldn’t modulate?

The authors of the UNC study end with this thought: “There are a lot of ways in which people are basically alike, but the experience of chills isn’t one of them. Some people seem to have never experienced chills while listening to music — around 8% of people in our study — but other people experience chills basically every day. Findings like these are what make the study of personality and music interesting — music is a human universal, but some people get a lot more out of it.”

What music gives you the chills?

1 comment

Fern Hill is a big yes, but Gorecki's Symphony No.3 floors me.

  • —Katie E, January 11, 2011 08:53 pm

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