Felix Salmon on MemeFirst responds to my post below with his own strong ideas on the psychoacoustics of “musical chill.” I think we’re talking about musical moments that dramatize themselves as physical events in physical space — foreground, background, figures in a field. A little ways into a piece, our ears have mapped the landscape in which the music is unfolding, defined it as a given. When something happens to change those parameters, there’s a heightened chance of chill. The Shostakovich Fifth example — solo winds in front of a tremolando curtain — can be explained not just as a replay of a primitive scene, as per Prof. Panskepp, but as a simple break in spatial logic: we have to reconfigure our ears when a solo instrument steps from the crowd. Steve Reich mentioned a different sort of “chill” as the epiphany that led to minimalism — the feeling that went through his body when the two tracks of “It’s Gonna Rain” began to go out of sync.
Felix cites the Commendatore’s entrance in Don Giovanni, which is certainly one of the chillingest moments in history. What’s going on here? What provides an extra tinge of drama, aside from the vehemence of the orchestration? The Commendatore sings constantly over a plunging octave (the same notes as the “Notung” motif in Wagner and the commercial jingle “By Mennin”). The octave plunge is then repeated in the dominant, pushing ever lower. Down, down, down, down: we know what floor this elevator is going to. Another example: I remember distinctly the day during my sophomore year in college when I listened to Simon Rattle’s recording of the Mahler Second Symphony. I felt a thoroughgoing shiver at the end of the first movement, when the orchestra plays a cataclysmic downward chromatic scale. Rattle played it super-slowly and super-loudly, which increased the drama, but it wasn’t the volume but the sheerness of the drop that did the trick. (A lot of octave descent here, too.) Other random examples come to mind: Salome singing into the bass-drum cistern, the slight but shattering fall from D to C# in Reich’s Music for 18. And this “floor dropping out” effect is only one of a million spatial illusions.
Felix suggests that these chills happen more often in live performance. Yes: you buy into the illusion of space when you’re in a real space. Music of extended duration, such as composers tend to write, also helps, though I can think of plenty of moments in both popular and unpopular music where chills well up inside four minutes. Forgive the inevitable Radiohead example, but one moment comes in their song “Just,” when the guitars ascend four octaves. This smacked me upside the head the first time I heard the band live: I had the physical sense that the sound was about a mile high (and no, I wasn't). Whatever genre you’re in, the challenge is to lay out a familiar space and then climb up the walls. Minor Threat’s “In Your Eyes” just came up on iPod: Ian suddenly screaming “Do you fookin get it?!?” halfway through the song is an excellent violation of the rules. Or the curt ending with its missing chord: your ears go pinwheeling for a second in the blankness.