Why is it that a particular piece of music, a tune or a song will move us in such a way that it will stop us in our tracks, send shivers up our spine or give us goose bumps? Spiritual or secular musical traditions such as Sufi music, Gnawa music, plainchant, gospel, blues etc. all imply elements of introspection, meditation or reverie that can lead to an altered state of consciousness and thus induce shivers. But whether or not a tune is part of any particular tradition, a spellbinding track is arresting at first hearing.
Science has a lot to say about this phenomenon. Music has the power to induce the release of dopamine in the system, thus generating an addictive feeling of happiness. Authors like John Sloboda or Jeanette Bricknell have analysed in detail what can make the experience of listening to music so moving depending on various personal, social or cultural contexts. Several studies show that slow pieces with alternating solo and orchestral arrangements building up into crescendos and interspersed with unexpected harmonic progressions, ornamentation or instrumentation are more likely to provoke “tears and chills”.
However, categorizing, measuring and evaluating musical preferences are limited tools for saying what music really means. Lyrics also add another layer of meaning. Then we all have different musical tastes, preferences, favourite instruments, genres and styles. Repeated listening of any kind of our favourite music can have the same effect and bring about over time new meanings that weren’t obvious in the first place.
More than often, it is the combination of distinct factors (receptiveness, time of the day, place, mood, context etc. ) falling into place at the right moment that has the potential to trigger a strong emotional response and transport us to another level, regardless of the genre.
Listen to Jack Kerouac for instance. In On The Road, he captures to perfection this moment of musical “beatitude” with the simple “it” word:
[…] Dean and I sat alone in the back seat and left it up to them and talked. “Now, man, that alto man last night had IT – he held it once he found it; I’ve never seen a guy who could hold so long.” I wanted to know what “IT” meant. “Ah, well” – Dean laughed – “now you’re asking me impon-de-rables – ahem! Here’s a guy and everybody’s there, right? Up to him to put down what’s on everybody’s mind. He starts the first chorus, then lines up his ideas, people, yeah, yeah, but get it, and then he rises to his fate and has to blow equal to it. All of a sudden in the middle of the chorus he gets it – everybody looks up and knows; they listen; he picks it up and carries. Time stops. He’s filling empty space with the substance of our lives, confessions of his bellybottom strain, remembrance of ideas, rehashes of old blowing. He has to blow across bridges and come back and do it with such infinite feeling soul-explanatory for the tune of the moment that everybody knows it’s not the tune that counts but IT-” Dean could go no further; he was sweating telling about it.
On The Road, part III chap. 5 p. 206
It is interesting to note that, amongst other things, “beat” also refers to “beatific” which comes from the French “beatitude” meaning “perfect happiness, euphoria, ecstasy, quietude”. Arguably, Kerouac’s whole body of work revolves around this constant search for beatitude, or Satori (enlightenment, understanding in Zen Buddhism). Jazz music or more precisely a particular chorus that has “IT” is one of the many paths to this enlightened state of mind.
In a totally different context, Draíocht is a wonderful word in the Irish language which also encapsulates the spellbinding potential of music or of a performer. In Blooming Meadows, Charlie Piggott discusses the music of Irish traditional accordion player Joe Cooley (1924-1973):
[…] Joe Cooley’s music possessed a strong element of draíocht. Draíocht means spell, enchantment or uncanny ingenuity, and one of the words for a magician in Irish is draoi (hence “druid”) […] Many observers and musicians consider Joe Cooley’s music to be special – something to do with his blending of the elements of spirited lift and plaintiveness. […] I’m told that, in some venues in San Francisco, people would sense on entering that Cooley was either expected in to play or had just left the premises having already played. Such was the effect of his personality and music.
In a way, the term Draíocht relates to the Spanish term Duende:
This ‘mysterious force that everyone feels and no philosopher has explained’ is, in sum, the spirit of the earth […]
writes Federico Garcia Lorca (1933).
It, Draíocht, Duende are all emotionally charged terms that go beyond defining a musical genre or tradition… and are all pointing to spellbinding music.