The lights go down to black. After queuing for several hours to earn my place, I’ve spent the whole show on the barrier, but it’s time to fully let go. I move backwards towards where the pit has been going for an hour and a half now.
The drone guitar riff starts, and the circle opens up, everyone within 50 feet in sync with what is about to happen. Strobe lights flash as the drums pound the intro fills. The hairs on the back of my neck stand on end and my brain feels super powered, fully alert. The LED screens fill with a pure white light, before by a thousand black birds begin to fly towards the stage, the band just silhouetted in front.
A Feast Of Crows, A Song For The Dead. The snare raps, and everyone piles into the middle as the band kicks in, impossibly loud, absolute chaos surrounds me and a euphoric feeling takes hold. I could die right now because it can’t get any better than this.
A few instances like this, when I’ve experienced total euphoria from live music, are still so vivid in my memory - moments that stick out more than any others, that I can still remember exactly as they were.
These moments can range from super-loud energetic moments in massive spaces like the aforementioned Queens of the Stone Age playing ‘A Song For The Dead’ at Wembley arena, to a solo vocal in a tiny, 100-capacity venue. When Broken Hands (a band I toured with recently) played ‘Impact’, the moment that the singer broke the song down to sing solo with no accompaniment before it came crashing back in is still so sharp in my mind that I can see it when I close my eyes.
When my band is in the studio, making decisions about our music, we spend literally hours fiddling with tiny parts of songs, attempting to strike a balance between the novel and predictable in order to create those magical moments. There’s not really any way to explain why things end up as they do - there’s often no reasoning other than ‘that feels right’, and what ‘feels right’ can change from day to day and person to person. Whatever differing opinions may exist in the band, we are always at pains to ensure the right decisions are made for each song. I have always been able to get the chills from recorded music, and had assumed that was the case for everyone. I’ve known and read about the effects music can have on the pleasure centres of the brain, but I never realised exactly what structures of music induce that euphoric reaction, or that not everyone can experience euphoria from music. In my reading, scientific literature based around music cognition claims that between a third and a half of people experience chills in response to recorded music.
Lisa Margulis from the Music Cognition Lab at the University of Arkansas found that the likelihood of experiencing chills varies depending on the kind of person you are: 90% of performing musicians are said to experience them, which aligns with my understanding of it, since the people I’ve asked about this feeling have almost all been musicians and all of those agreed that they too experience them.
The key to all this is that you can expect what will happen in a particular song (‘veridical expectations’) and still contrast it with what normally happens in music (‘schematic expectations’).
But I’ve never got a full on euphoric feeling from recorded music like I have from a live situation. Maybe its because the volume level and contrast between loud and quiet is higher; maybe there’s just something special about being in that moment right there and then.Emily C. Nusbaum, a researcher at the University of North Carolina found that the type of music people listened to didn’t matter in terms of getting chills; what did matter was the structure. Large shifts in tempo or volume or a sudden entrance of a vocal seem to be the root cause of experiencing chill: surprising or unexpected moments that subvert our expectation of what might be about to happen seem to bethe real winners here.
According to a study conducted by Valorie Salimpoor, a neuroscientist at McGill University in Montreal, songs that trigger the strongest responses from the emotional and intellectual parts of the brain correlate with a willingness to pay money more for them. That suggests that people don’t just have a sensory response to music, but an intellectual one too. If a piece develops in a way that’s both unexpected and yet still roughly in line with our brain’s prediction, we seem to like it more than ones that don’t. Having that intellectual ability to recognise patterns and be able to predict what’s likely to happen in the future may explain why humans like music so much in the first place - the ability to imagine may be the brain mechanism that was the key to our evolutionary progress as a species above other animals - and music exercises our imaginations without us even knowing it.
A piece subverting expectations or going beyond them might explain why 90% of musicians experience them - people who understand, deconstruct and listen to music more regularly are more likely to have stronger predictions as to how a song might go, and music that does something different or unexpected would be more likely to surprise (and therefore excite them) than the average listener.
But all of the times I’ve experienced it in a live situation, they’ve all been songs I’ve known in advance and knew what was coming. The key to all this is that you can expect what will happen in a particular song (called ‘veridical expectations’) and still contrast it with what normally happens in music (‘schematic expectations’). A large shift in volume, tone or tempo will still feel surprising no matter how many times you’ve heard it happen, because most of the time, music doesn’t do that.
Does that mean the reason that hearing songs you already know live is better than hearing them recorded is purely because the ‘big moments’ that you already know exist in those songs are so much louder due to the spaces they’re being played in, and so much more exciting as there’s real people there making those moments happen in real time in front of you?
It seems that getting chills is a matter of expecting the unexpected: building to something big, something the audience may know is coming - but then doing it so much bigger, in such an exciting and unexpected way, that it overloads their sensory systems and elicits that euphoric reaction.