Sep 9th 2017

Why Bach makes you shiver

by Michael Johnson

Michael Johnson is a music critic with particular interest in piano. 

Johnson worked as a reporter and editor in New York, Moscow, Paris and London over his journalism career. He covered European technology for Business Week for five years, and served nine years as chief editor of International Management magazine and was chief editor of the French technology weekly 01 Informatique. He also spent four years as Moscow correspondent of The Associated Press. He is the author of five books.

Michael Johnson is based in Bordeaux. Besides English and French he is also fluent in Russian.

You can order Michael Johnson's most recent book, a bilingual book, French and English, with drawings by Johnson:

“Portraitures and caricatures:  Conductors, Pianist, Composers”

 here.

 

If music makes you happy or sad, you are probably an average listener. If it leaves you indifferent, you might be considered insensitive. But if it gives you goosebumps you are in a very special group with connections in your brain anatomy that others may never feel. It is a gift to treasure.

New research has studied individual differences in what the doctors call “aesthetic reward sensitivity”. True music fans, they say, get an extra kick out of their favorite composition – classical or popular – and the proof is in their “skin orgasm”, an involuntary erection of hair follicles. This very public display of erogenous feelings outside the usual sexual canals is difficult to hide.

Next time you get shivers listening to Maria Callas’s Casta Diva, Beethoven’s Ninth, or a good organ playing most anything, check these symptoms identified in the study – a lump in the throat, shivers and chills in the body, tingling in the scalp or the back of the neck, bumps on the arms, shortness of breath, and what the Anglo-Saxon world calls goosebumps (chair de poule, or “chicken skin” to the French) on the arms.

Scientists have tested the reactions of individuals and determined that true music-lovers also enjoy the byproducts of their condition -- a super-active imagination, an appreciation of nature, a taste for new experiences, a desire to express their emotions, and a search for variety in life. I know people like that. I just might be one.

For me, the most emotional musical experience in my life was a visit to the Eglise St. Germain des Prés in Paris when, by chance, the organist was practicing Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor to an empty church. Was it the echo off the stone walls? Was it the unexpected free concert? Was it the sound quality of the much-renovated instrument?   Was it God talking? I never decided.

An informal survey I conducted among friends in Bordeaux indicates that erogenous power exists in a wide variety of musical stimuli. One banker friend mentioned Leonard Cohen singing “I’m Your Man”. Another cited Yuja Wang playing “Flight of the Bumblebee” at blinding speed.

My choice for the most powerful remains the Bach Toccata and Fugue, especially in this animation by Stephan Malinowski:

When I forwarded the Bach clip to a music critic friend, she replied that she had heard it before. “It has already shivered my timbers,” she said. Exactly.

But stimuli can come from anywhere in the music spectrum. Rachmanninov’s Piano Concerto No. 3 does it for millions. Passages of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons can catch you unawares. The dissonance of Prokofiev, the harmonic surprises in Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, and the warbling charm of Messiaen’s masterpiece Turangalîla all sneak up on you and grab you by the medial prefrontal cortex. Some tests have used Air Supply performances. One relied on Vangelis’ Mythodea Movement 6.

The study of this phenomenon was conducted by PhD student Matthew Sachs at the University of Southern California, Los Angeles. His paper, “Brain connectivity reflects human aesthetic responses to music”, has been published in the journal Oxford Academic and research into the phenomenon continues. “The neural link,” says the study, “between sensory experiences and pleasurable aesthetic responses remains unclear.”

The initial findings grew out of a screening process of 237 individuals who responded to an online survey. The researchers identified the 10 participants who reported perceiving chills to music (chill group) consistently, and the 10 participants who reported rarely or never perceiving chills to music (no-chill group). They were studied and contrasted intensively. The report did not specify which music was employed in its testing.

Among the findings was that involvement in the arts activates the same reward network in the brain that responds to the basic, sensory pleasures associated with food, sex and drugs.  Music, the study concludes, provides an idea platform from which to study pleasure and reward.

“Throughout history,” the researchers said, (music) is often reported as one of the most enjoyable of human experiences.”

The pleasure from music is associated with “increased functional connectivity in the brain between auditory cortices and mesolimbic reward circuitry”, the study concludes. What remains to be clarified is why certain individuals get “intensely pleasurable responses” from music but others do not.


 


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