Just the thought of the opening chord in Etta James’ “At Last” is enough to send chills up my spine. A couple seconds into the song, goosebumps follow. I’ve listened to the track countless times, I know what’s coming—yet somehow, I always have the same viceral, physical reaction. I know it’s not just me, and plenty of people around the world have their own version of “At Last,” but it continues to be so difficult for us to pin down what exactly is causing that physical response. And even stranger is the mystery of those who have no reaction whatsoever.
Research tells us that people who cry or get chills when listening to music have an increased number of fibral connections in the brain processing sound and emotion, and generally have stronger emotional reactions to any kind of stimuli, not just sound. But we all get goosebumps in times of fear or panic—as part of our fight-or-flight response—so the reasoning why about half of us get them while listening to particular songs while others do not is still debated.
It is generally accepted that most have deeply emotional reactions to music because it’s a waiting game, based on what we expect to happen next, and we mentally fill in what we predict is to come. When listening to a song, we are always striving for resolution, a release from any dissonant chords still hanging in the air. Melodies are always striving to get back to the “home” chord, often traveling long and far to build suspense. When a song gets close to the chord you’ve been waiting for, the one that will take a song back to home base and give it closure, dopamine levels spike—and chills ensue.
Dissonance is best described in a 2014 New York Times article as the “do, re, mi” major scale—the first seven notes, from “do” to “ti” build plenty of tension. Once you get to “ti,” there is a fair amount of palpable dissonance—but, you know the next octave will bring release and total closure. You know it’s coming, and everything feels better after returning to the base note on the final “do.”
Scientifically speaking, this is related to the concept of appoggiatura, which is defined by The Wall Street Journal as “an ornamental note that clashes with the melody just enough to create a dissonant sound,” thus creating tension in the listener (famously occuring in Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring”). The listener then waits for the anticipated melody to return, which resolves the tension that was built throughout the song.
Dr. Martin Guhn, a psychologist who has conducted studies surrounding this phenomenon, and his colleague Marcel Zentner found that songs with the ability to produce this type of intrinsic physical reactions all contain four qualities: They exhibit an increase in volume, unexpectedly add an additional voice or instrument, show a broader range of frequencies (such as a key change or octave jump), and include some sort of surprise in sound. And whether this suspense and release mechanism make us feel happy or sad, relaxed or on edge, the dopamine released in the conclusion likely keeps us coming back for more (which explains why we sometimes listen to sad songs over and over).
And so it goes—tension versus release, consonance versus dissonance, climax versus resolution—songs are driven by the start-stop, cyclical sound that keeps us on our toes, even if it’s completely subconscious. Queen does it all the time (think of the build and release at the end of “Somebody to Love”), as does Eric Clapton in the outro of “Layla.”
Dissonance occurs in many different forms, and sometimes is so mild that it might better be described as “discomfort” within a song.Tension and dissonance in music is what makes music push and pull at our heartstrings—giving a song the ability to ache right along with us. It also gives songs the rushing, soaring sensation at the end that can be achieved through just one single note. And it shows, for better or for worse, that dissonance and tension are much more than cogs in the greater song machine. They are absolutely pivotal for keeping people coming back for more—tears, goosebumps, and all.
Featured Image by Ikram Ali / Heights Editor