Searching for a Song’s Emotional Arc

June 9, 2023

In theory, theory and practice are the same. In practice, they are not.

—Albert Einstein

In theory, crafting a record must involve some attention paid to the record’s emotional arc. This point is frequently emphasized in Berklee’s music production and engineering classes. It seems logical that record makers should, after all, consider how their work might make someone feel. Yet the perspective is faulty. No amount of craft can inject emotion into a record because, well, records don’t have feelings.

A large body of evidence from behavioral, physiological, and neuroimaging studies shows that experiencing an emotional response while record-listening is contingent on a number of factors: internal, such as attention, motive, and preferences; and external, such as context and cultural norms. To complicate matters, time has a way of reweighting each factor as our lives and our world change.

Musical events that cause chills are often those that parallel the sound of a child or animal in distress.

Our music-loving brains begin forming in utero. By the time we reach adulthood, the neural assemblies tasked with processing melody, lyrics, rhythm, timbre, and music’s aesthetic features such as novelty, abstraction, and authenticity, have conspired with the dopaminergic reward system to shape our unique listener profile. Your profile is similar to your taste in food and fashion; you know what you like because—through trial, success, and error—you have discovered what works for you.

Music’s primary job is to serve some purpose for a listener. Because we have a variety of needs, we typically enjoy a variety of music genres. Some of your favorite records are cherished for their lyrics, others for their rhythms or melodic changes. Some cause you to feel nostalgic while others launch  your dreams of the future. No record maker can build in such responses or predict what listeners will consider to be the perfect part or performance gesture. What record makers can do is capitalize on ancient brain circuitry that ignites the sympathetic nervous system: the chill response.

When Whitney Houston hits a high note with an extraordinary dose of power to spare, or when Jonny Greenwood plunges into a guitar solo from the melodic high dive, the acoustic features of these sounds can trigger goosebumps. Also known by its technical term—piloerection—the chill response has a social origin. Musical events that cause chills are often those that parallel the sound of a child or animal in distress.

Like many primates, we humans are quick to recognize the contact calls of our own offspring, and we can ignore nonemergency calls that don’t concern us. Distress calls, on the other hand, are a special class of signal, the kind that generates an innate response. This privileged signal causes our auditory, motor, and emotion systems to alert the entire nervous system that something needs immediate attention. Distress-like sounds in music can trigger a chill.

In theory and in practice, composers and record makers employ unexpected chord changes, arousing timbres, and emblems of emotional contagion to guide a listener’s ear toward those musical treats sprinkled throughout the composition. Yet the moment a record, as an acoustic pressure wave, excites the listener’s eardrums, it elicits a unique one-of-a-kind mental event. Examining the emotional arcs of listeners is far more complicated than the theoretical parsing of a record’s emotional arc. Getting in touch with our own listener profiles and teaching students how to do the same helps us align  both the theory and the practice of music.

Susan Rogers wrote and teaches the new Berklee Online course Music and Neuroscience and is the author of This Is What It Sounds Like: What the Music You Love Says About You (W. W. Norton & Co.).

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