I discovered the Bach Mass in B Minor when I was a teenager, and vividly remember the first time I listened to it -- I put the LP record on my dad's turntable, turned the volume up to 11 (that's for you fans of This is Spinal Tap) and lay on my back on the floor. The work moves from dark to light, from driving rhythms to delicate sweetness, and I drowned myself in baroque counterpoint -- a wonderful way to die, I think.
Then came the bass aria, "Quoniam Tu Solus Sanctus." It's a wandery little bit, quiet and mellow. I almost drifted off to sleep. And then, suddenly, the full chorus and orchestra explode into "Cum Sancto Spiritu." I'll never forget that moment -- I felt like I had been physically lifted off the floor -- a shiver ran through my whole body. It was one of the most visceral responses I've ever had to a piece of music.
Now, lest you think I'm some kind of classical music snob, I have to state for the record that I don't just have this kind of reaction to classical music. Which music will send me into a state of rapture is a question I've pondered frequently, because there seems to be no particular rhyme nor reason to it. I had similar reactions to Imogen Heap's "Aha," Collective Soul's "Shine," Iron & Wine's "Boy With a Coin," the Harlem Shakes' "Sunlight," OneRepublic's "Everybody Loves Me," Overtone's South African chant "Shosholoza," and the wild, spinning Finnish waltz "Kuivatusaluevalssi" as recorded by Childsplay.
All of which, by the way, you should immediately download from iTunes.
While I still don't understand why certain songs or pieces of music create this reaction in me, Robert Zatorre and Valorie Salimpoor of McGill University have now explained how the reaction happens. In an article published Sunday in Nature, Zatorre and Salimpoor explain that what happens in the brains of music lovers when hearing favorite pieces of music is similar to what happens during sex -- there is a sudden release of the chemical dopamine. This chemical is a neurotransmitter, and is part of what creates the rush of pleasurable sensation not only while doing the deed, but while listening to Bach -- or whatever music turns you on. As it were.
Participants in the study underwent PET scans while listening to favorite pieces of music, and researchers found that dopamine was released in large amounts in a region of the brain called the striatum, which is part of the limbic system's pleasure-and-reward center. Interestingly, the dopamine release started about fifteen seconds prior to a "peak moment" in the music in a part of the striatum associated with tension and anticipation, and then when the climax of the music came, there was a sudden rush of dopamine in a different part of the striatum, one connected to physical pleasure.
Myself, I don't find this surprising at all. For me, music is all about emotion. I can appreciate technically fine playing (or singing), but if a song or piece of music evokes no emotional reaction in me, it's not worth listening to. When I teach music lessons, I've always tried to impress upon my students that when you can play the notes and rhythm correctly, up to the correct speed, you're halfway there; the other half is learning how to express feeling through the music.
I still find it a fascinating, and unanswered, question why certain pieces resonate with one person, and leave another completely cold. I know that although we like the same basic musical styles, my wife and I have very different taste when it comes to specific songs, and neither of us can really put our finger on why a particular song blows us away, and another leaves us shrugging our shoulders. I suspect that that is a question that will never be resolved -- it's as personal, and as mysterious, as one's favorite food, favorite color, or (more to the point, apparently!) what one finds sexually arousing.
There's also the question of what possible evolutionary purpose this reaction could have. Something so powerful, and so universal, must provide some kind of evolutionary advantage, but I'm damned if I can see what it might be.
Despite the fact that there are still questions -- and in science, there always are -- at least now there's a physiological explanation of what's going on in the brain when this reaction occurs. I find this fun and fascinating, and am glad to finally have an understanding of something I've always experienced, and always wondered about.
And now, I think I'm going to go listen to the Mass in B Minor.