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Simple Chills

By Peter Lloyd

Researchers who study the effects of music on listeners have discovered a few things that support a creative principle that giants like Beethoven have practiced through the ages: If you want to create music that gives people chills, keep your composition simple. Of course, food, drugs, and sex might have something to do with it as well.

While great, hair-raising compositions may not strike one as simple, they are. And it may be a listener’s ability to perceive music’s beautiful simplicity that produces listening ecstacy. Let’s look first at listening.

Very few people never feel chills when they listen to their most loved music. According to one study, “People who are particularly open to new experiences are most likely to have chills in response to music.” In other words, curious, creative people with active imaginations.

The ability to feel the chill was tested against several other dimensions of personality. Only openness to experience related to feeling chills. In another study, researchers connected chill-ability to simpler pleasures. “Whether it’s the Beatles or Beethoven, people like music for the same reason they like eating or having sex: It makes the brain release a chemical that gives pleasure.”

descriptionThe chemical, dopamine, helps us feel the pleasures of table and bed as well as the euphoria of some drugs. To get more dopamine-flow out of music, you have to open yourself to what music has to offer. Even the most challenging music. The avant-garde conductor, Michael Gielen, advised his listeners to “give the guard at the the threshhold of perception the night off” when listening to modern, often dissonant, orchestral works.

On the compsition side, consider what showed up on the faves list of the most chill-worthy test subjects most often: Barber’s Adagio for Strings, the second movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, and Debussy’s Claire de Lune.

So what is it about these works that unleashes dopamine? How might you set out to compose music that gives people chills? You know the answer—keep it simple. But here’s more evidence: When yet another researcher compared the complexity of noise against what we consider the most beautiful music, simple won, batons down.

To measure simplicity, he reduced a range of sounds in much the same way lossless data compression does. He found that random noise can be compressed by 86 percent. Most popular music to by about 60 percent. But even the relatively complex Third Symphony of Beethoven can go 40 percent and remain recognizeable.

A writer once presented me with work and apologized, “I would have made it shorter but I ran out of time.” It’s simple to say make it simple but it ain’t that simple to do so.

PS: Other research demonstrates the chilling effect of visual art on some people.

Peter Lloyd is co-creator with Stephen Grossman of Animal Crackers, the breakthrough problem-solving tool designed to crack your toughest problems.

171 Right Brain Workouts are available in the 134-page paperback
Right Brain Workouts: Aerobic Exercises for the Creative Side of Your Brain.

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