Choral Goosebumps

This article is the fourth in our four-part series on “The Magic of Vocal Harmony” where we briefly explore an aspect of choral singing that sparks the imagination to learn more about the science behind why we sing together.


Even though we are in the season of Halloween, getting goosebumps when listening to choral music is not always an indication of something scary. A shiver or even tears in response to music may feel mysterious at first, but it is common and can be a positive emotional experience. This phenomenon of getting chills or goosebumps in a thrilling or surprising manner when listening to music is called “frisson”.

In fact, being affected by the music is one of the reasons listening to live choral singing can be so thrilling. Is there something inherent in the music that elicits a physical response in the listener? Research in musical frisson explores specific qualities of the music (harmony, volume, etc.) that induce chills in the listener. However, the emotional state of the listener before the music happens or their previous experiences with certain music cannot be overlooked as a contributing factor to frisson. The goal of film composing is to drive the viewers’ emotional response to a movie through music, but the visual component cannot be discounted as an influence. With respect to choral music, the text often has a significant impact on the feelings that a particular song can evoke. It would make sense that the way the music is performed, such as the music being well-executed and/or the performer conveying emotion, would affect the listener’s emotional response to the music. The causes of frisson appear to be wildly complex, but the result seems to be same: music has the power to affect us physically and emotionally.


Film music is an approachable example to considering the emotive power of music as there is a visual and dramatic component accompanying the emotion the film is attempting to convey. It can be as simple as very low pitches foreshadowing or corresponding with a large and frightening cinematic event (the “Jaws” theme being a very famous example) or sweeping crescendos that promote a feeling of triumph or victory. Have you ever watched a pivotal movie scene without the music? The essence of film composing in rather incredible as these composers consciously use the music to enhance the feelings being displayed in the cinematic story [Here is an interesting video exploring the how Howard Shore used music to convey emotion in “The Lord of the Rings”]. But film music has also evolved over time, and as viewers, we have learned to associate different feelings to certain types of music through the physical emotions being expressed in films. Nevertheless, these film composers are not singlehandedly determining the emotional connections to the music – frisson must have an archetypal origin or there is something inherent in the music that compels our bodies to react.


The studies of frisson explore the musical framework or components that tend to elicit the chills or thrills when listening to music. One of the main contributors to experiencing frisson in music is a sudden change in the dynamics, range of pitch, or harmony. When a piece of music defies our expectations, we experience an element of surprise that results in a positive feeling. It is similar to when a friend unexpectedly taps our shoulder from behind and our initial response is shock followed by a rush of relief at seeing a friendly face. When a piece of music makes a sudden harmonic change, it goes against how our brain expects the music to progress (i.e., the surprise), but then lands beautifully in the new harmonic space (i.e., the relief). This choral song “Alma beata et bella” by composer Edie Hill exquisitely employs such drastic harmonic shifts (listen here at 4:57).

When a piece of music defies our expectations, we experience an element of surprise that results in a positive feeling.

A sudden and unexpected change in the music from volume and/or the introduction of an extremely high note can cause frisson because the drastic change feels thrilling. The singing of the “Star Spangled Banner” at sporting events is an iconic representation of the response to the high note on “or the land of the free.” If the high note on “free” is executed well, the crowds will start cheering. Could it be the patriotic text that drives the emotional response or the high note? Studies also suggest that extremely high pitches or fully-bodied vocal belt utilized in pop and musical theater can induce frisson because of their closeness to the human scream, a possible evolutionary remnant.


To engage in a little research on your own, there is new feature in some YouTube videos that indicates the timestamp of the most replayed spot in a music video. This tool provides data regarding the exact spot viewers watched and/or listened repeatedly. We can surmise the listener replays the part they found most unexpected or enjoyable. Take a quick listen to two choral examples from the same choir (Tenebrae) that show this “most replayed” feature by clicking the title: “Os Justi” by Anton Brucker at 0:43 and “Miserere mei, Deus” by Gregorio Allegri at 1:35. What did you notice about the “most replayed” spot in these two choral songs? In one example, the highest note written in Renaissance choral literature is introduced, which is a sadly a mistake due to several errors that persisted over the centuries (a fascinating story for another time). In the other example, there is an unexpected loud section combined with soaring high notes amidst harmonic dissonance. Both songs have been hailed online as eliciting a chilling response, but what is the defining factor? The high notes, harmony, dynamics, and excellent execution of the ensemble could all be influencers.


Our previous connection to a genre of music, style of harmony, or a particular song also plays a significant role as to whether we will experience a physical reaction to the music. There are styles of music or specific songs that will always bring tears due to the emotional moment that coincided with the music (e.g., your wedding song) or the emotional state one resides when the music is played (e.g., funeral music). For me, organ music will always bring tears as I recall spending weekends in the organ loft while my father, who died when I was a child, played the organ. Certain emotions can be tied to specific music. Have you noticed how cathartic it can be in times of strife to listen to music? In those moments when we are emotionally primed, the music can become the conduit in which to express those feelings. This exploration of music frisson suggests that inherent qualities in the music not only can cause us to respond physically but can enhance our feelings. In a video by Adam Neely [video link here], he explores how the particular key change and the epic high note in the pop song “All by myself” sung by Celine Dion embodies the catharsis of the text. After suffering the loss of her husband and brother, this part of the song Ms. Dion had likely sung millions of times evoked an emotional response on stage, inhibiting her ability to sing. The text of any song can greatly enhance or magnify our emotional response to the music. The music can then serve as an outlet for our emotions.

The text of any song can greatly enhance or magnify our emotional response to the music.

The video clip above also briefly referenced the excellent execution of the music as a factor in the listener’s emotive response. The conveyed emotion and skill of the performer(s) seems to make a difference. With respect to choral concerts, the capabilities to induce frisson might be greater due to the inclusion of text and the connection and collaboration inherent among the singers.

Our vocal chamber ensemble, Voices of Concinnity, works to capitalize on the emotive component of a performance by actively engaging with the other singers and breathing together during performances. An audience member commented after a concert last year that Concinnity’s sound was “healing”. This observation prompted the exploration of how music can affect our emotions and we subsequently developed a choral concert incorporating music we believe has the potential to move the emotions of the audience. We have included songs that defy our expectations with varying dynamics and drastic harmony changes, that highlight the high and low range of the singers, and that beautifully express a emotive texts. Whether it is a feeling of warmth, the rush of chills across our skin, or the welling of tears, our bodies tend to react to the music and the moment. Music reminds of us of our humanity and can serve has a channel to express and process our emotions.


 

This broad yet brief exploration of how music impacts our emotions is last article in our series called “The Magic of Vocal Harmony”. Now that we have reached the completion of the series, it should aptly be renamed as “The Relevance of Choral Music” since each of the four essays create a compelling case for how choir can help rebuild the sense of community and connection we have lost after almost three years of a pandemic. We explored that singing in choir is good for our health [Article 1: Choir brings good vibrations], singing harmony is not only collaborative but self-affirming [Article 2: Drawn to vocal harmony], certain sounds can only emerge when we sing with others [Article 3: The Ghosting Soprano], and listening to choral music can compel us to feel [Article 4: Choral Goosebumps].


This series is presented by Sarah Kaufold, Artistic Director of Consonare Choral Community, who holds a BA in Psychology and MM in Choral Music. It was in her undergrad studies where she first began to explore the connections between psychology and music.


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