"Goosebump Science"

Keith Yates

The last couple of times my wife Hanne and I put on our annual “Backyard BBQ & Movies by Moonlight” event, for which approximately 150 of our nearest and dearest assemble for live concert clips under the stars, I made an announcement of what we had in store. “If you like live concert footage of Clapton, U2, Fleetwood Mac or Carlos Santana, you’re in luck, the A/V system is huge and off the charts. If your tastes run to folk, jazz or blues, well, you’re in for a treat, too. We’ve also got big band, Broadway and bluegrass. Just hang in there, there’s something for everyone.”

“And if you just can’t fathom the appeal of, say, Baroque opera, well, tough luck. It’s my party, my friends, and you and the neighbors within a mile or two are destined to get a potent dose tonight. When it’s over, I predict you’ll be saying, ‘That clip of the surgically-altered opera guy dressed up in a helmet and feathers and singing like a girl gave me honest-to-god goosebumps!’”

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I pulled the clip from a Golden Globe winning art-house film from 1995 that traced the more or less true story of a castrato so celebrated throughout Europe nearly 300 years ago that many music historians consider Carlo Broschi, a.k.a. Farinelli, the first genuine “rock star” in the history of music.

When a particularly memorable scene opens we’re in a grand opera house of Handel’s day, and in the middle of Farinelli’s plumed aria an aristocratic lady in the balcony makes a rattling noise with her tea-cup while reading a book of poetry. He stops the orchestra, directs a long, penetrating stare at her, then takes off on an improvised, soaring, breathlessly high solo, clearly designed to melt her into submission. By the time the orchestra catches up, others in the audience are fanning themselves; some have swooned and fainted. As the scene ends, the young woman’s cheeks are flushed, her eyes are teary and she’s slowly taking off her necklace, a wordless acknowledgement of her surrender to the power of his art.

Things have changed in the roughly three centuries since the scene took place. (For one, we don’t enlist surgeons to put young boys in neutral in the hopes of making them star vocalists.) Yet biology is biology and we’re still just as transported and changed by great art and beauty. Psychologists estimate humans have been so transported for tens of thousands of years. We can exhibit goosebumps, dizziness, lachrymation, fainting – ecstasy.

In Our Heads

In the introduction to Music, the Brain and Ecstasy, author Robert Jourdain points out that the word ecstasy comes from the Greek ex- for “outside” and stasis for “standing”:

Sounds that leave you standing outside yourself. Sounds like those that called Ulysses to the Sirens’ rocks. Sounds whose potency lies beyond pleasure and even beyond beauty. Sounds that reveal to us truths we have always known yet won’t be able to recount when the last echo has subsided.

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In the Lab

In the years since Farinelli was released, researchers have proposed various terms, including Strong Experiences with Music (SEM), typically associated with tears, frissons (chills/thrills/shivers), lump-in-the-throat sensation, and piloerection (goosebumps).

Neuroscientists point to the secretion of serotonin, dopamine and endorphins in the brain, and are busy employing brain imaging technology to see what areas “light up” with peak musical experiences.

There’s been exciting progress but it may be decades before enough data are collected and unpacked to afford us a holistic understanding of what’s going on in our noggins during transcendent musical experiences.

In Your Home

If you’re lucky enough to have a great private theater, or know someone who does, consider screening a concert DVD or Blu-ray that gets you and other invitees all a-tingle. You’ve probably got a few good candidates sitting on your shelves or ripped to a Kaleidescape or other movie server. If nothing springs to mind, you might start out with the tried-and-true “Diva” clip from that sci-fi favorite, The Fifth Element. (It’s otherwise known as the mad scene aria from Donizetti’s opera Lucia di Lammermoor of 1835.) Or how about Adele’s Live at Royal Albert Hall? k.d. lang singing Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” from Live in London? Clapton at the Crossroads festivals or Concert for George [Harrison]? Santana’s “Smooth” from Supernatural? Maybe U2? BB King? Peter Gabriel’s Secret World Live concert or Alison Krauss & Union Station’s “Oh, Atlanta” on their Live Blu-ray?

Say, if you’ve read this far, how about a little Baroque opera?

-Keith

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