Exploring the Tingle Factor

How and why does music move us? Psychologists have now proved that the ‘tingle factor’ really exists. Rob Ainsley explains

Next to being in love, music is the most powerful emotional force in our lives. We all have our own special pieces that we listen to when we want to be in a certain mood – anything across the spectrum of excited, happy, relaxed, wistful, or just miserable.

How do plain noises manage to do this? Much of it is obviously to do with memories and established associations. Certain pieces of music might bring back highly personal memories – the last time you saw your father, the day you met your lover, a happy holiday, or whatever. They obviously vary from individual to individual.

But there are other associations that are more universally shared. For example, in the West, very slow march music in a minor key (‘the’ funeral music is Chopin’s Funeral March) has traditionally been played at funerals. So, if we hear a piece of music that is a slow minor-key march, we tend to think of it as gloomy and miserable. But this begs the question of why such music has been played at funerals in the first place. Is there something genuinely sad in that type of music? Can certain types of music actually trigger off certain emotions?

Some generalities are obvious. Fast, loud music with strident timbres is arousing, gets the adrenaline going, and makes the heart beat faster; slow, quiet, steady music tends to be soothing and calming. But some fast music might trigger off positive aroused emotions (excitement, exuberance, joy) and others negative ones (anger, frustration). Similarly, some slow music might be seen as meditative and relaxing, other slow pieces as introspective or sorrowful. This doesn’t get us much nearer finding out how exactly the ‘tingle factor’ works.

However, Professor John Sloboda of the University of Keele in England is an expert on the psychology of music, and he has researched into the question of whether particular musical structures can reliably produce certain emotions. And the answer appears to be yes – the ‘tingle factor’ really does exist. In one of his tests on 83 music listeners, 80 per cent reported having had tingles involving shivers down the spine, laughter, tears and lumps in the throat.

A piece of music doesn’t just put you in one mood all the way through – your emotions will vary subtly throughout the piece, with certain phrases consistently switching in certain responses as the piece progresses. After his tests, Professor Sloboda looked at the emotions reported by listeners, and the musical phrases being played at those points in the piece. He concluded that music can give us the following three types of ‘tingle factor’.

Tingle Factor No 1: Lump in the throat
Lumps in the throat, eyes welling up, trembling lower lip – the kinds of physical responses associated with crying. Music provoking this response has a number of features in common.

Most important, it seems, is what musicians would call appoggiaturas and suspensions – notes which don’t ‘belong’ in the harmony but are put in either as ornamentation (appoggiaturas) or which have been held over from a previous chord (suspensions). Albinoni’s Adagio is a classic case, with its suspended notes in the opening lines. Moments which also provoked this reaction in Professor Sloboda’s tests included the opening bars of Bach’s St Matthew Passion; beat 2, bar 2 of the slow movement of Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto; and the love theme in Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet.

This effect also happens when a note is held over a harmonic progression so that it belongs in the first chord, but not in the second, and then has to move downwards into the third chord to fit (or to ‘resolve’; musicians would point to the circle of fifths as a good way to set up this effect).

Sequences of notes that are repeated at higher or lower pitches also tend to bring about this response. Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto shows the effect, in its slow movement.

There seems to be something affecting about music in which the harmony shows patterns of tension-relaxation-tension and so on. Professor Sloboda points out that it may imitate the effect of gentle rocking.

However sad the listeners appeared to be, they reported feeling much better afterwards, and enjoyed the experience – like the sentimental kind of tears you have when someone tells you they love you, says Professor Sloboda. Far from being negative, ‘crying’ music can be a positive, almost cleansing experience, in the long tradition of the cathartic properties of art – which is probably why we enjoy weepie films so much!

Tingle Factor No. 2: Goose bumps
A collection of skin sensations here – goose bumps, shivers down the spine, hair standing up on the nape of the neck. Subtle surprises, in the harmony for example, can bring this about. Goose bumps can come from ‘enharmonic change’: this is where the music unexpectedly pivots from one key to another, unrelated one, around a note or chord that fit in both keys.

Similarly, unexpected slides or shifts of texture can do the trick. Again, listeners report that the feelings of surprise are entirely pleasurable – Professor Sloboda says it’s like being on a sort of musical roller-coaster.

Goose-pimple moments in Professor Sloboda’s tests included Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht at bar 229; and bars 105, 170 and 257-8 in Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4; and ‘Barrabas!’ in Bach’s St Matthew Passion.

Tingle Factor No. 3: Beating heart
Music that gets the pulse racing, the heart thudding and the excitement going seems to be based on another sort of surprise: when something happens earlier than expected. Syncopation is precisely that – when the stressed beats come in at an unexpected time. It’s just as if someone has decided to hurry up the rhythms of the music.

Another example of this sort of tingle is when a particular instrument or voice comes in to the texture ahead of the schedule. In his tests, Professor Sloboda’s listeners picked out the flute entry in the slow movement of Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2, No. 107 of the fourth movement of Prokofiev’s Fifth Symphony, and bars 191, 392 and 439 of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4.

It’s interesting that, in our survey, most of the choices of the Classic CD readers fitted firmly into the first two categories: definitely the slow movements rather than fast ones, goose pimples and lumps in the throat rather than thudding hearts.

Perhaps, in a world that seems to grow more hectic and more pressurised every year, it’s understandable that we should want music that slows us down rather than hurries us along.

Classic CD magazine, 1994


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