We have songs, movies, and books that we love. But what about the peak moments in those experiences–those moments that stop the breath, chill the skin, and clutch the heart?
Why do certain musical passages give us chills?
In an article at Inverse, titled “Ariana Grande Gives You Goosebumps Because Pop Songs are a Stress Test,” Yasmin Tayag writes,
At the center of the Venn diagram of emotions triggered by experiences — bear attacks, sex, and live Bonnie Raitt sets — is a simple physiological/emotional phenomenon: stress. All of these things kick the brain into emotional overdrive to varying degrees, triggering the release of neurotransmitters like adrenaline and dopamine, which jolt the brain and prick the skin.
In other words, the brain experiences certain passages as a threat, prompting the body to go to DEFCON 3. And the trigger is drama. According to Tayag,
Songs that featured big, unexpected jumps in dynamics — from loud to soft, or vice versa — gave people goosebumps; so did songs that incorporated surprising harmonies, jumps in frequency, and unexpected changes in melody.
One very effective use of a dynamic jump, in a musical equivalent of a jump scare, comes midway through “Self Control,” by Frank Ocean, which I take to be a song about loss and acceptance.
According to Wikipedia, Ocean is known for his “introspective and elliptical songwriting,” a quality apparent in the first part of the song: a sparse, almost meandering soliloquy with only a voice and single guitar. A groundswell of bass is felt at 2:05, accompanied by a second voice, this one with an alien, electronically-tinged quality. The sonority deepens until, at 2:30, comes a sudden rush–up, straight up–into the sky. The electronic voice takes over completely, but now the words are unintelligible. Communication has failed; there is only a cry in the night.
Then, part three settles in, much different from part one, but with great power, as the listener has just been left emotionally vulnerable by the recent attack. This part sounds almost like a chant–or a prayer. There is a multitude of voices singing in harmony. Is it communion? Consolation? Who can say.
It’s the calm after the storm. This is what a cadence is for: resolution of the tension, a musical denouement. I.e., peace.
As Salimpoor et al. explain in a study with the ungainly title, “Anatomically distinct dopamine release during anticipation and experience of peak emotion to music,” at nature.com, “[R]esults indicate that intense pleasure in response to music can lead to dopamine release in the [brain’s] striatal system.” But that’s not all. “Notably,” they write, “the anticipation of an abstract reward can result in dopamine release in an anatomical pathway distinct from that associated with the peak pleasure itself.” In other words, it’s a temporally-driven, whole-brain experience.
It’s also what keeps us coming back. “What’s universal,” writes Tayag, “is the fact that we all crave that prickle of goosebumps, even if it does, in a physiological sense, herald the onset of emotional stress.” In other words, to quote Frank Ocean,
Now and then you miss it;
Sounds make you cry;
Some nights you dance with
tears in your eyes.