June 29, 2004

Musical chills

Alex Ross – surely one of the only bloggers in the world who gets Alban Berg operas "stuck in my head for whatever reason" – talks today about the psychoacoustic phenomenon known as the "musical chill",

in which listeners are suddenly overcome by a physical tremor that runs down the body and raises the hairs on the skin.

This is something well known to many of us, I'm sure. But I've never really thought about when I experience such things. Ross suggests that they're particularly common when "a solo instrument steps in front of a softer background", but I'd like to add my own suggestions:

  1. It's much more likely to happen in classical music than it is in jazz, rock or pop;
  2. It's much more likely to happen with live music than with recorded music;
  3. It's much more likely to happen after you've been listening to a piece from the beginning, rather than just listening to an excerpt in which the spine-tingling excerpt appears.

It's also related, I think, to the phenomenon you get with dance music, when you're in a club, some kind of music is playing, and then suddenly an enormous thumping bass line gets dropped in and the crowd goes wild. Related, but not identical: while they're both physical reactions to music, one rivets you into your seat, while the other almost forces you to dance.

Is there one particular moment which springs to mind as usually causing such a chill? I'd say the end of the second act of Don Giovanni, when the Commendatore comes to dinner and announces his presence with a booming bass rendition of the eponymous antihero's name. When it's done well, you can physically feel the lothario's impending doom.

Posted by Felix at 08:42 PM GMT

There's a triumphant passage and a high note near the end of "Always With Me, Always With You," by Joe Satriani, that never fails to give me chills.

Posted by: Paul W. on June 29, 2004 09:55 PM

Anything by Frankie Valley and the Four Seasons. Hey, where's Annette?

Posted by: Jame on June 30, 2004 12:59 AM

When Rodolphe launches into Che gelida manina in La Boh╦me. It happened to me here.

Also, any rendition of that Bach Prelude, you know the one with the cello solo, will tend to do it for me. Anyone remember in which movie's soundtrack that was used? I can never nail it.

Posted by: Stefan Geens on June 30, 2004 08:04 AM

Seriously now,
I'm ignorant of classical music so most of my chilly spine moments come from listening to other forms of music. I think mood matters. If I'm in an excitable state and I put on a great rock song, I can really shoot to the moon, especially if I'm alone and can sing along or dance without inhibition. Feeling the zest of youth, feeling powerful - invulnerable - unstoppable - that's the power of rock, and it can be incredibly uplifting, though ephemerally so.

I was fortunate to see the Emerson String Quartet, which just played in HK. They did two concertos by Hayden and Beethoven which I enjoyed, but I'm too much of a philistine to appreciate them fully. However their second number was a dark, somber piece by Shostokovich, about whom I know next to nothing. A dirge about surviving the German front is not exactly a toe-tapper. But this piece was incredibly moving, and the quartet played with a precision and passion that left me dumbfounded.

Posted by: Jame on June 30, 2004 10:34 AM

Just read Alex's refrain to the above. I think we have to be careful not to start calling every emotion fostered by music a form of chill. Felix, I am not sure if your examples all count. Wanting to start dancing when a really good tune hits the dancefloor is a strong emotion, but it is not the chill down the spine.

Do you think those people who get chills down the spine more easily are more into music than those who do not, or vice versa, or are the two not related?

Posted by: Stefan Geens on June 30, 2004 06:16 PM

I've got chills, they're multiplyin'
And I'm losin' control
For the power, your supplyin'
It's electrifyin'!

those words always sends an involuntary shudder down my spine- does that count?

Posted by: mike on June 30, 2004 07:20 PM

1 no it isn't
2 no it isn't
3 no it isn't

Posted by: Chris Bell on July 2, 2004 04:40 PM

Ozzy Osbourne - Mama I'm Comin' Home

Posted by: jack on December 5, 2006 10:30 PM