A singer’s blog – Joy to the World meets Seize the Day

25 January 2016

Community choirs and musical frissons

When Southampton teenager Isaac Watts complained to his father that church music was boring, he replied, “Why don’t you give us something better, young man!”

‘Joy To The World’ was just one of the more than seven hundred hymns he wrote and three hundred years later I think he would have been delighted to have sat in his home town Guildhall and heard Inspiration Southampton Choir’s Christmas concert featuring his celebrated carol.

On his way in he might have passed his marble statue in Watts’ Park, heard the Guildhall clock tower ring out with a verse of ‘O God Our Help in Ages Past’, and then joined a packed audience enjoying an afternoon of far from boring music.

There were moments in the concert when he might have noticed me, second row back on the right, unable to sing: not because I’d forgotten the words but simply due to an overwhelming, choking surge of emotion. It may have been prompted by noticing the rhythmic sway of the BSO violins, a fall of notes from the harp, a memory of times past.

According to recent studies (reported by David Robson on the BBC Future website) I am not alone and, although there are some recognised ‘triggers’ – sudden changes in harmony, dynamic leaps (from soft to loud), and melodic appoggiaturas (dissonant notes that clash with the main melody, like you’ll find in Adele’s ‘Someone Like You’) which seem to be particularly powerful – everyone can also have their own individual, spine-tingling moments.

‘Musical frissons’, or ‘skin orgasms’ as they are sometimes known, cause a physiological change that’s locked to a particular point in the music. Our own autobiographical experiences interact with the musical devices – so we can find different pieces of music rewarding.

Friends in the audience texted me during the interval, “I’m loving this” and, “There is a lot of emotion out here,” so it seems the frissons were felt out there too.

The BBC report explains that one major component seems to be the way the brain monitors our expectations. From the moment we are born (and possibly before), we begin to learn certain rules that characterise the way songs are composed. If a song follows the conventions too closely, it is bland and fails to capture our attention, (which is why Isaac Watts complained to his father.) If a song breaks the patterns too much, it sounds like noise. But when composers straddle the boundary between the familiar and unfamiliar, playing with our expectations using unpredictable flourishes (like appoggiaturas or sweeping harmonic changes), they hit a sweet spot that pleasantly teases the brain, and this may produce a ‘musical frisson’… and I stop singing!

Evidence for the social and medical benefits of singing, and particularly of singing together with others, have been well publicised recently. My niece’s GP husband in Cumbria is now prescribing a community choir to patients.

So, it was with renewed expectation and excitement that we met up with friends old and new for our first spring term rehearsal last night. We were leaving behind Isaac Watts and looking forward to the frisson-filled world of Alan Menken. I’m not sure if he’s ever been to Southampton but, as he says in ‘Raise Your Voice’: - ‘First rule of singin’: get the rafters ringin’!’ Like Isaac Watts before him, his music will certainly not be boring!

Alan Matlock
Singer with Inspiration Southampton

Tickets are now on sale for ‘Seize The Day’ which will be performed in Southampton, Leeds and Newcastle. Visit the What’s On pages for details.

Inspiration Southampton Concert