April 05, 2022

Affected: The Chemistry & Emotions of Live Music

Affected: The Chemistry & Emotions of Live Music

It’s July of 2011. I’m in the nosebleeds of the EnergySolutions Arena with my sister, and down on the stage below, Katy Perry emerges from the trapdoor in a silver sequined Judy Jetson-esque dress covered in mechanical spinning peppermints. The crowd ripples with excited screams and joyous applause as the lights dims and focuses on our entertainer for the evening. 

“Hello, Salt Lake City!” Katy belts into her icy blue microphone, and the resonance of her voice thuds into our very bones. A poppy rhythm drums from the speakers. Katy and her dancers start scooting around, a buoyant kick-step that she’ll keep doing for the next two hours, even as she sings and breathes and speaks to us, our indefatigable party host. 

Those around me sing along, clapping, cheering, bouncing. The whole arena is a kaleidoscope of rainbow lights and pure synchronized candy-coated happiness. 

And I am crying as if I’m at a funeral.

Even as a young child, I noticed a difference in how I seemed to react to live music and how others around me reacted. Our family has a holiday tradition of attending the Nutcracker; the year they brought in a live orchestra to accompany the ballet, I cried so hard, my face was swollen as a Christmas ham. 

In high school I went with my friends to an admittedly terrible local ska band skank-off and the percussive brass made my heart beat faster and harder, and my chest spasmed with sobs, and I had to remove myself from the venue and wait for my group in the Jamba Juice next door. 

At a Vampire Weekend concert in my 20s, someone thought I was having a panic attack and kindly parted the crowds around me like Moses, insisting that I was given space—no, not panicking, just overwhelmed by the emotions conjured up by lyrics like “Me and your cousins and you and your cousins, I can feel it coming.”

It's especially funny if you know that I’m a musician and was a performer for most of my life. I never became an inconsolable puddle of raw feelings when I was the one onstage. Only when I’m in the audience. 

Katy Perry’s California Dreams tour was all about lighthearted, flashy, colorful pop songs, but that hardly mattered. I had a blast that night with my sister but I still came home dehydrated and wrung out, and it took me another two days to physically recover and restore an emotional baseline.

If there’s a live instrumentalist, if there’s a human voice singing into a microphone and it’s hitting my ears, the noise goes right to my heart, and the waterworks start. 

The science is on my side, to be fair. Listening to live music is a major physical experience. It rattles several major organs, changes the chemical balances of your brain, distorts bodily processes, and the memory can linger in your mind for months or even years. 

In Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain, neurologist Oliver Sacks explains that there’s no one musical center in the human brain. Instead, there’s over twenty networks that interpret the different parts of music—pitch, rhythm, melody, and so on. Taking in music, whether live or pre-recorded, requires your whole brain, as well as multiple sensory systems, which can turn it into a full-body experience depending on your particular sensitivities. 

Some of these physical effects are pretty marvelous when you break them down and examine them one by one, and I’m not just saying that to justify my own obnoxiously melodramatic reactions. 

Live music speeds up your blood flow, for one thing. Decent circulation helps your immune system function, your wounds heal, your oxygen levels stabilize, your organs work at optimal levels. As if encouraged by the timbres of the notes, your arteries surge, your veins flood, your heart leaping to meet the rhythms. 

When your circulation increases, your cortisol levels decrease. Cortisol—if you’ve seen that word before, you probably know to frown at it. It’s the body’s main stress hormone, essentially our chemical alarm system. Too much of it floating around in our body, and our systems are constantly on high alert—high blood pressure, mood swings, muscle weakness, an anxiety that never ceases. Live music soothes those cortisol levels. It dilutes the hormone, shushes our adrenals. 

Afflicted Quote

Those rhythms? The strumming of a guitar, the clatter of a drum set, the bump of something heavy and synthesized and electronic? Those are great for your body, too. The vibrations have been shown to help with pain, fatigue, depression, and memory loss. The areas for healing and movement are right next to each other in our brains, so for many of us to hear is to feel.

What about dopamine? That worshipful, almighty neurotransmitter that allows us to feel pleasure, make plans, think? Yes, live music is great for flooding our brains with dopamine. You might, like me, experience a rush of goosebumps when those first opening notes sound out in a venue. That’s frisson, a psychophysiological response to auditory stimuli. Some feel it on their necks and backs. Some shiver, their teeth chattering. Some call it skin orgasms. Live music delivers frisson more frequently and reliably than any other stimuli. 

One last thing to mention is the in the inner ear. The sacculus are beds of sensory cells in the inner ear. They’re very important for vertical orientation, and they’re incredibly sensitive. The tiny hairlike follicles on the sacculus can interpret even the slightest changes in frequency, and they connect directly to our pleasure centers. The saccule, endorphins, dopamine… it’s all a tight positive biofeedback loop, and the quickest way to hop into that loop is to sit for a musical performance

So. Tons of things happening on a physical level when we experience a concert or a symphony or a choir performance. It makes sense that merely being in the audience for such an event would affect us so intensely—and here I’ll admit that I am definitely more sensitive than your average bear. I’m neurodiverse, so I already have some difficulties with auditory input—do not try to talk to me if a television or a radio is on, or I will skyrocket to an unreasonable irritability. Two sources of music or conversation playing at the same time causes a physical pain in my body—something like a headache, but in all of my nerves. 

I underproduce dopamine, so anything that will trigger a flood of this sweet, sweet life chemical into my brain? That’s going to overwhelm me. Even my skin has sensitive moods—yes, I am a delicate flower.

Cortisol levels wane. Endorphins flood the swirls of the brain. The heartbeat steadies, air fills the lungs, and the euphoria of inner calm waves through me, and I cry. Kind of like when someone scratches your back, and it feels so good that it hurts—the relief of stress subsiding feels like I’m shedding a too-tight skin, and the sensation of a fresh, new, warm self is too much to bear without a dramatic release. Out come the tears. Floodgates, open.

Afflicted Quote

But despite all this buzzing and rumbling and stimulating of tiny hairs inside of ears, my live music sob fests are about much more than just sounds.

I’m a musician. I started piano at five and had what teachers called, in equal parts adoration and frustration, “natural talent,” which meant I spoke the language of music fluently and with little effort, no matter how much or rarely I actually practiced my lessons. I sped to mastery and at twelve was contemplating a future in classical piano performance—and then my piano teacher, who also happened to be my maternal grandfather, died very suddenly when I was fourteen, and piano became a rabbit hole of painful memories. I picked up the guitar instead, channeling teenage angst and grief into Nirvana and Pink Floyd. 

Eventually I found the piano again, and spent most of my late teens and early twenties ping-ponging between girl-with-a-piano style songwriting and confessional-with-acoustic-guitar type songwriting, with some belting musical theater mixed in for good measure. 

My relationship with music is its own special dynamic. There are key signatures that have always felt more natural (D major, B major, D-flat major), there are my own choreographed lifts of the pedal to avoid the dreaded muddy dampening effect, there are preferences and shortcuts and chords that feel like home. My left hand is stronger than my right. I worked for years on the art of playing softly, playing quietly, striking the keys with enough force to make them sing while still keeping the notes muted, controlled, gentle. 

It's certainly not just piano—I’ve got a real lifelong struggle with an F-chord on the guitar, but my wrists do a decent job of picking up on strumming rhythms. I developed my own voice as a singer, with my own rules and bounds, learning my respiratory system inside and out, understanding just how to contract my lungs to draw out a note to that tender quality—

And when I sit for a live performance, all of that bubbles to my every surface.

Every musician develops their own relationship with their instrument—and I don’t mean just the physical object itself. There’s a code, a friendship, a communication that must be established. If I strum you this way, you sing out this way. If I shape my mouth this way, my words come out this way, to this effect. Listening to another musician synergize with their instrument of choice—knowing the years of work, of correspondence, of sacrifice required to make that sonic magic? I can’t help but see it. Hear it. 

Afflicted: the Experience of Music

It hardly matters if the musician is that talented or not—in some regards, it’s almost easier to see the hours of practice when you’re watching an instrumentalist who isn’t completely polished. With every note, I can imagine the moments huddled over a piano, the clench of frustration in the chest, the hands curled into claws, fiddling with one three-note passage again and again until your bones know it better than your own name. I can imagine a mother, probably, ready with sticker charts or punishments, encouraging the daily habit that’s required to master the music. I can imagine the heat of triumph when you finally, finally soar through a piece that had seemed impossible only six months ago, and you feel it fuse to a part of your soul.

Hearing a song that has a history, a pedigree—that’s an experience that can conjure up sentiment, and for good reason. Consider the most performed classical piano piece, recited by seasoned pianists and teenaged students alike: Beethoven’s Fur Elise. Every time you hear it, even if you’re listening to a shaky, jolty version that hiccups through the arpeggios—you’re listening to a piece that was scratched into being over two hundred years ago. Two hundred years ago! There’s no way to substantiate this, but it’s not impossible to imagine it has been performed, on average, at least once a day since it was composed. That’s so many performances! And every time it is publicly played again, another rendition is added to the tally. Another interpretation. To play Fur Elise for an audience is to write yourself into history. There’s a dignity that you may drink from when you stroke its notes—you are playing notes that have been played hundreds of thousands of times before, and the beauty of this, of all performers of Fur Elise being interconnected like ghosts, stirs up the weepiness in me.  

If the musician performing is one I have a particular fondness for? Oh, forget it. That’s a recipe for a crying jag so violent, I might be louder than the microphones. When I was twenty, Tori Amos came to Salt Lake City. I was stunned—stunned that she and I would be in the same city for the night, and if I could have chosen a single artist to witness in concert that would create a sort of permanent internal shift and affect me for the rest of my life, it would have been her. 

But I couldn’t bring myself to buy tickets. I could picture myself, sharing the same air, experiencing her not as a disembodied voice on a CD or a recorded presence on a YouTube video, but as a real person, a goddess—and I knew I’d be a wreck. So I made my peace and listened to Boys for Pele at home, knowing I was sparing myself a major humiliation and that the concert-goers nearest my would-be seat would thank me for keeping my hysterics away. 

The ability of humans to understand and derive happiness from music is innate, biological, and universal. Even if the musical traditions and tastes differ from culture to culture—which they absolutely do—the power of music to affect humans is one of the most defining hallmarks of our species. I have no issues with declaring it our best quality. 

And with every year that passes, I age, and I wonder if the inherent cynicism that comes with growing older will finally sand down my most sensitive parts, leaving me capable of seeing some of my most coveted musical performances in person at last. How marvelous it would be to watch Bikini Kill as a gift to my ten-year-old self? Or to take my mom to see the Chicks? I’d kill to see Sigur Ros, and Tori Amos is going around the world again. My heart is still imprinted with her songs. If I saw her now, it would feel like I’d made up for lost time.

But attending any performance of live music is still (fortunately or unfortunately, depending on your take) an overwhelming, overstimulating, overemotional experience for me. My nerves have not yet been filed down and whatever pessimism might be waiting for me in my 40s or 50s will have a lot of work to do. 

The last show I attended? The show with which I can measure my current ridiculous PDA (Public Display of Affectivity) levels? 

The Muppets singing Christmas carols in Disneyland. And I cried.

No, not technically live, since I’m assuming the people who voice the Muppets were not literally crouched beneath the double-decker bus where the Muppets performed, singing into microphones. But the Muppets were really there. They were singing. We in the audience stood along Main Street, clustered and still, watching the performance before us—spotlights on Gonzo and Camilla, Kermit and Miss Piggy, Sam the Eagle. We were quiet, and the Muppets sang. The speakers brought their voices right to my ears, and the machinery of my ears, my brain, my blood, my chemicals—all of it burned my chest. Out leaked the tears, and I weepily sang along, a Yuletide sob because it was the happiest moment I could remember in a long, long time.

Yes, I cry at concerts. I mean, I really cry. Music makes us all feel something, and for some reason my frequencies are cranked up to embarrassing, upsetting levels. So I’ll continue to experience music through the safety of headphones, of car speakers, of my own piano in my living room, and implore the rest of you: the next time you feel yourself well up at a live show, let the tears drop. Let it burn. Let yourself cry. Let yourself be gloriously human. 


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Lindsay Eagar is the author of several novels for children and adults, including HOUR OF THE BEES and most recently THE PATRON THIEF OF BREAD. She lives in the mountains of Utah with her husband and their two daughters. 

Lindsey Eager

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