There's still hope for sopranos: thanks to evolution

This week I’ve been having a lot of fun with the music that I’m working on because my voice teacher is out of town and I took her absence as an opportunity to remind myself why I continue to work on improving my vocal chops every day rather than simply maintaining my current level of performance. With sincere apologies to my neighbors, I have to admit that I’ve been enjoying practicing the stratospherically-high runs in the famous Queen of the Night aria (Der Holle Rache - you can find it here, starting 40 secs into the video) from Mozart’s The Magic Flute. Sometimes I just need to let it rip.

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I’ve also been dusting off the Chansons Madecasses or Madagascar Songs by Maurice Ravel, in preparation for a concert that I’m giving on July 15th (details and a sample of one of the songs can be found here). These are fabulous, sensual and politically-charged pieces for voice, piano, cello and flute and I love them dearly. These chansons couldn’t be more different from Der Holle Rache in terms of the words, dramatic context, feel, style, tonality and texture and yet, when I’m singing them right, I get goosebumps. And not just when I’m singing them, but also when I hear someone else performing them.

Having that experience made me wonder, as I often do, why we get the ‘chills’ from specific musical passages. Jaak Panksepp, an Estonian-born (we’re practically neighbors! as my mother would say) neuroscientist in Washington state has studied and written about this phenomenon for decades, with an influential paper published in 1995 showing that, contrary to our intuition, we get the chills when we listen to ‘sad’ music, rather than music that makes us feel happy. A solo line, often in the soprano register (lucky for me), emerging from a denser musical texture most often caused his subjects to experience chills. He also found that women are more likely than men to get goosebumps when listening to music.

He has since gone on to suggest that the experience of chills evoked by music is related to the distress that we feel when we are separated from someone we love and that this response has perhaps evolved to encourage mothers to respond to their crying babies. It’s easy to imagine many of the most memorable musical passages as separation calls: Whitney Houston’s version of Dolly Parton’s I will always love you, the guitar solo in The Eagles’ Hotel California, the vocalise by Rachmaninoff, to name just a few. The solo instrument, on a simple melodic line, emerging from a thicket of other sounds.

Blood and Zatorre, neuroscientists at McGill University used neuroimaging to explore the parts of the brain that are activated during the experience of the chills evoked by music (you can find a copy here). They report that the same brain regions involved in other pleasurable activities such as eating or having sex such as the orbitofrontal and ventromedial prefrontal cortex, the striatum and the midbrain, are also involved in this experience. But what’s most interesting to me about their studies is the fact that exactly which musical passage evokes the experience is very much tied to the individual: just because I like it, or find it moving, doesn’t mean that you will. Of course, that observation is self-evident to most of us, and the staggering diversity of music available to us demonstrates that musical taste is deeply personal. By the same token, I’ve watched mothers pick out their own baby’s cry from a cacophony of sounds with remarkable ease.

As I return to my vocal practice this week, I’m going to keep both Panksepp’s and Blood and Zatorre’s findings in mind. And at my next audition, I’m not going to worry about the fact that at least a hundred other sopranos are vying for the part. I’ll remember that, just like a baby’s cry, each of our voices is unique and there’s no telling which of our voices will wake the latent maternal instinct deep in the heart of the men and women on the audition panel. There might be a lot of sopranos out there, but we also might be favored by evolution to give our audiences the chills. And that’s a goal worthy of all the practice hours it demands.