Artwork © Lauren Delora Sears
Do you ever just start moving to a piece of music and you feel like you can’t help yourself? It can be embarrassing in public but nowadays I don’t care. Unfortunately, for the past few weeks I have been too busy to listen to music. I know. I know. That seems so crazy but it’s true. For me it is unheard of – I love music and if it has a beat, well, something starts to move.
Our bodies respond to all kinds of external stimuli. With music, we usually respond to rhythm first. Sometimes, I find myself toe tapping to music I don’t even like. And I feel compelled to sway, jiggle, or sashay across the floor – at least when I’m alone – when invigorating music comes on. It would take something totally abhorrent to my personal sense of aesthetic to stop me from doing so.
Back in my school days there was a sound that, even now, creates a more noticeable and lasting response. Fingernails on a blackboard! It doesn’t seem quite the same with a whiteboard. The sensation is so vivid I can just hear the words ‘fingernails on a blackboard’ or imagine it happening and it evokes that spinal chill. I have already had 3 or 4 just writing that sentence!
Even better is the intensely pleasurable experience we get from particular sounds. The neurons in our brains get quite excited by specific characteristics of sound and produces the amazing sensation of goosebumps or aesthetic chills when we hear music that we adore. There are certain pieces of music that many people respond to – Puccini’s Requiem is one. Others are more specific to individuals and some don’t get it at all. The goosebumps are definitely a very pleasurable experience and it lets you know that the music has hit that sweet spot. The music activates the pleasure and reward structures deep within the brain which are also active in response to other natural and pleasurable stimuli such as food or sex.
Photo credit: Ildar Sagdejev
Certain musical events within a song can trigger the reaction and for me it usually involves harmony and or powerful voices. But not just any powerful voices. There is clearly something very particular, yet indefinable, that sets it off. Sometimes it is unexpected. At other times I know exactly which singer, piece of music, and part in the piece that will do it. It enhances the whole feeling. I used to try to fool myself. I’d think of something else, hoping to avoid it, but some pieces are so strongly resonant they slip through the defences. Before I know it, the hairs on the back of the neck are standing to attention so I no longer try. One of my earliest memories of a song that elicited the goosebumps was the harmony in Eagles’ Seven Bridges Road.
The technical name for goosebumps is piloerection. It occurs in many animals including porcupines and, of course, frightened cats. When threatened their hair, fur or spines stands on end to make them appear bigger.
How does the skin get those bumps?
The hair follicles have tiny muscles attached to them called Arrector pili muscles. When they contract they pull the surrounding skin downwards creating a depression leaving the follicles high and dry – the bumps!
The hairs stand erect stretching upwards into the air and increasing sensitivity to small stimuli. With threats, you’re on high alert and hypersensitive. With music, it maximises the sensation and it is just glorious!
Psycho-physiologists can test our physiological response to music and match it to the subjective feeling of the listener. The pairing of the physiological response with subjective feeling is very useful for emotion research. The most common measures of such emotional arousal are the Skin Conductance Response (SCR) and the Heart Rate (HR).
The level of arousal we experience can be directly measured with SCR. Like the cat and porcupine, our bodies are geared to respond to threat using the ‘fight or flight’ response. Either of those requires some serious activity! The human body prepares by sweating more to cool itself down. It happens all the time, as we respond to emotions or thought, but it occurs at such low levels we barely notice it. When the threat becomes large enough those sweat glands go into overdrive. We all know the sweaty palm feeling when we’re particularly anxious about something, like exams, job interviews or stage performances. By placing electrodes on a finger, and placing a small painless current across them, scientists can measure the increased skin conductance from the perspiration.
Music has the ability to affect our emotional states and transport us to a different time or place. It can rev us up to provide motivation via those reward centres when there is something particularly mundane to deal with ahead of us – think housework music! We can also calm ourselves down and change our arousal levels, a fact long known by mothers who have sung a lullaby to a baby at bedtime.
Music is one of life’s pleasures that is intensely personal and emotional so it must be strange to never experience its thrills and chills. Scientists are now beginning to relate these responses and experiences to aspects of personality and even our genetic code. I can’t wait to see what they discover.