Musical Goosebumps and Where they Come From

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musicophilia-1I’ve read so many books on music and the brain that sometimes I forget which information comes from which book, among them Daniel Levitin‘s This is Your Brain on Music as well as the late Oliver SacksMusicophiliaOne of the things Sacks examines is why some people react so emotionally to music (=musicophila), or certain music, while others are unmoved (=amusia). I’ve always reacted strongly, both negatively to music I can’t stand as well as being moved to the stars by modal John Coltrane or Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. For me, my emotional journey began at age 16 in my bedroom at home when I put the needle down on Coltrane’s Impressions album. I had listened to lots of 50’s R&B, New Orleans gumbo, and pop music before that, mainly because I had an older brother who played 45 rpm singles by Little Richard, Fats Domino, Bo Diddley, and Chuck Miller. Listening to Little Richard’s “Tutti Fruitti” when it came out made me, my older brother, and my twin sister do the St. Vitus dance in the basement, with the volume turned up to 4 o’clock because my parents were out. It was more visceral, a different kind of energy than Coltrane, which was more cerebral, more spiritual.

The other day I listened again to Arthur Honegger‘s beautiful 1920 piece, “Pastorale d’Été.”  At a certain point, when the strings chime in on the main theme, I got total goosebumps. It made me think of what I’d read a while ago, which I think was from Musicophilia.

When a cat is threatened, it puffs out its fur and looks much bigger; my ginger cat Mr. T would double in size when somebody brought a dog into the front yard. As neanderthals, we were much hairier than we are now, and a fear response would make our hair/fur stick out and we’d appear larger to whatever was threatening us, just like cats today. Getting goosebumps is our vestigial response now.  It’s interesting that what started out eons ago as a fear response has evolved into a pleasurable response brought about by music and other things that move us.

Pastorale in last week’s show. For you obsessives, the flashpoint for my goosebumps comes between 1’37” and 1’51” total elapsed time. The French horns, the winds, and strings coalesce into a sonic ambrosia that for me is truly sublime.

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