Humanity's soundtrack: How music has influenced society and what it means to be human

Katie Lauer, The Mercury News on

Published in Lifestyles

SAN JOSE, Calif. -- When was the last time music made the hairs on the back of your neck stand up, sent a chill down your spine or gave you goosebumps all over?

Whether it’s a full-body rush from joining in an outdoor choir of 58,000 Swifties at Levi’s Stadium or a shudder from the evocative tension that’s made Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings” cinema’s unofficial mourning song, those moments spark a psychophysiological phenomenon or frisson.

The first time that intoxicating sensation rattled Jeremy Wagner — a composer, lecturer and the technical director of the Center for New Music & Audio Technologies at UC Berkeley — was during high school, when he was flooded with emotion while listening to the orchestral swells in the Beatles’ 1967 track “A Day in the Life.”

This physical reaction is commonly associated with a fear response in the animal kingdom — puffing up fur, for example, to fend off predators or keep warm. But Wagner said dynamic musical changes in melody, pitch, tone and rhythm can trigger a more evolved or even subtler form of that same mechanism in humans, replicating that same bodily tingling during moments of awe, sadness, thrill or novelty.

“For me, the feeling of frisson is most profound when you have that sense of awe, when you’re in the presence of something that is spectacular or difficult to access. Some people might call it the ‘divine’ or something bigger than yourself,” Wagner, 43, said. “The artistry at work is what’s causing the experience of awe, leading to that physiological response.”

Wagner leads a course at UC Berkeley that analyzes the exact oddities that lie at the nexus of music and perception.


Researchers have uncovered many reasons why and how music is so integral to life as we know it. Musical styles and artists that are enjoyed as a child, for example, often influence lifelong music tastes, largely because those songs were introduced at a time when brains are the most “plastic” and able to make connections.

However, there’s still a lot of unknowns shrouding what feels like such a deeply innate part of being human.

Wagner said that while brain imaging can illustrate which parts of the brain are active, for example, when people listen to music and feel frisson, medical scans fail to fully explain why the experience is enjoyable. Yet, he said, those unknowables can still act as stepping stones that guide intuitional understanding of why we enjoy music.

“When you’re looking at this data in the brain, a single cubic millimeter has hundreds of thousands of neurons participating, so the fact that something is lighting up might give us a hint at what’s going on, but it’s not really telling us the whole story,” he said. “There’s this horizon beyond which it’s kind of difficult to know anything for certain, so I try to emphasize intuition.”


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