“Music melts all the separate parts of our bodies together.”
— Anaïs Nin
A few weeks ago, my wife and I took our kids to a mid-afternoon matinee showing of the new Annie movie. By almost any objective account, it was a pretty terrible film. Still, whenever some of the more familiar songs began—songs I’d first heard some 30 years ago, sitting on an old blue sofa with my own parents—I felt something: those wonderful chills, that strange happy/sad hit of nostalgia.
Afterwards, I thought about this far longer than any reasonable human being probably should, trying to tease apart how something so largely awful—we’re talking Jamie-Foxx-singing-in-a-helicopter-over-New-York-City awful here—was somehow capable of bypassing my critical faculties entirely and making a beeline straight to my central nervous system. How could an awful remake of an average musical, starring Jamie Foxx and Cameron Diaz, possibly produce within me that which Nabokov once famously referred to as “that little shiver…quite certainly the highest form of emotion that humanity has attained when evolving pure art”?
As is so often the case, science has the answers—or, at least, it mostly does (leaving a slight space open for the unexplainable). I had read Daniel Levitin’s This is Your Brain on Music several years back, but beyond remembering that I loved it at the time (and the odd fact that infants can “see” music because their senses haven’t yet sorted themselves out, rendering a good deal of their baby days rather like an extended acid trip), I couldn’t recall a whole lot about it. So I did some 21st-century “research” and typed “Why does music make us feel?” into Google. I promptly fell down an internet rabbit hole, clicking endless links and quickly littering my screen with an abundance of tabs: Art, psychology, music, math, neuroscience, Einstein, Schopenhauer, research studies, brain scans. Even now, weeks later, I’m not all the way out of that rabbit hole, nor do I particularly want to be.
So why did Annie give me chills? Maybe it has something to do with this:
“Music stimulates an ancient reward pathway in the brain, encouraging dopamine to flood the striatum—a part of the forebrain activated by addiction, reward, and motivation. Music, it seems, may affect our brains the same way that sex, gambling, and potato chips do.
Strangely, those dopamine levels can peak several seconds before the song’s special moment. That’s because your brain is a good listener—it’s constantly predicting what’s going to happen next … But music is tricky. It can be unpredictable, teasing our brains and keeping those dopamine triggers guessing. And that’s where the chills may come in. Because when you finally hear that long awaited chord, the striatum sighs with dopamine-soaked satisfaction and—BAM—you get the chills. The greater the build-up, the greater the chill.”
Of course, that music moves us is hardly a new idea. William James—the father of American psychology, among other things—pointed a good deal of this out over a century ago, remarking not only on music’s chill-inducing powers, but its ability to move us to tears as well: “When listening to music we are often surprised at the cutaneous shiver which like a sudden wave flows over us, and at the heart swelling and lacrymal effusion that unexpectedly catches us at intervals.”
And before James, no less a figure than Charles Darwin himself opined on music’s propensity to make us feel things deeply. “Music has a wonderful power of recalling in a vague and indefinite manner, those strong emotions which were felt during long-past ages, when, as is probable, our early progenitors courted each other by the aid of vocal tones,” he wrote, back in 1872. “And as several of our strongest emotions – grief, great joy, and sympathy – lead to the free secretion of tears, it is not surprising that music should be apt to cause our eyes to become suffused with tears.”
Striatums sighing with dopamine-soaked satisfaction? Heart swellings and lacrymal effusions? Strong emotions felt during long-past ages?
And so, we’ll spend the next two issues chasing after those chills. This month, we’ll take a look at musicals and soundtracks, two different themes cut from similar cloths. We begin with musicals: Molly Parent views The Music Man through the eyes of her father, exploring nostalgia, musicals, and memory; Bruno Alves tells the tale of his Portuguese family growing up with The Sound of Music at Christmas; John Douglass connects with his grandfather through The Court Jester; Matthew Lawrence wrestles with the multi-faceted panoply that is Nashville; and Chris Donald takes an up-close look at his favorite scene in Evita through the particular lens of his own autism.
After that, we segue into a focus on the use of music in films. Greg Cwik breaks down David Lynch’s unique use of music throughout his filmography; Olivia Collette explores the way music speaks the unspeakable in Tous les matins du monde; Morgan Davies examines the relationship between artist and fan in Velvet Goldmine; and Kyle Meikle pulls off the seemingly impossible, comparing Guardians of the Galaxy and Blue is the Warmest Color by way of their soundtracks.
Lately, my own life can feel a bit like a musical at times, especially the hours spent at home, soundtracked as they are by endless variations on a theme. I wake up to my kids singing “Yellow Submarine” at the top of their lungs, eat breakfast with them as they make up new lyrics to Katy Perry songs (“‘Cause I am a champion and you’re gonna hear me…eat cereal!”), and then walk them to school as they dance their way down rain-slicked sidewalks. After school, the house is filled with the sounds of pianos being practiced, living room dance parties being had, and yes, repeated requests to listen to that new Annie soundtrack just one more time.
For the record, they loved the movie, simply and unabashedly, and spent exactly zero hours of their lives trying to figure out why.