I’ve been to a lot of great concerts in my life, and they were all great for different reasons. Michael Bublé, for example, was an excellent performer and made me nostalgic for the rat pack days I was born too young to see. MxPx, on the other hand, was my favorite band as a teenager, and that show was cool simply because it was a chance to see Mike Herrera on stage and in the flesh. And Dashboard Confessional was great because everyone in the audience shouted along with every word that came out of Chris Carrabba’s mouth.
But my favorite concerts weren’t about the bands or the cool memories around the shows, but instead were concerts where the experience itself was unlike any other. There is something about great sound and a well-crafted lighting display that takes you to a place “other,” an emotional experience that you can never really relate afterwards.
Now, the ability to fully articulate the concert experience may yet allude us, but scientists have studied the ways that music and light affects us and found out some of the reasons why it happens. For example, when we get “chills” (goosebumps, etc.) listening to music, it is really a reaction called “frissons” that occurs when dopamine floods the body. The fact that such an abstract concept as music can cause the brain to release dopamine is fairly unique in human biology (the usual causes being physical exertions that have direct survival value such as food or exercise).
In fact, a recent study published in Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience looked at these “frissons” and researched why music causes this reaction. In the study, they found that people who had these reactions to highly emotional music had more nerve fibers in their brain connecting the “auditory cortex” to the “anterior insular cortex.” In layman’s terms, this means they had more connections between the sound and emotional processing portions of the brain.
In a recent interview with The Guardian, neuroscientist Robert Zatorre of McGill University explained, “This interaction between auditory and emotion systems is the basis for musical pleasure. People who get more of a direct ‘thrill’ from music have a stronger connection.” Matthew Sachs, the graduate student who conducted the study, went on to add, “It’s very hard to know whether or not this is learned over time, or whether these people naturally had more fibers.” Either way, music clearly has a direct tie to the way our brains are wired. Studies have shown that by strengthening these ties in our brains through exposure to music, we can have more satisfying musical reactions as well as stronger cognitive abilities overall.
In fact, a recent University of Southern California study demonstrated that children who study music not only show an improved ability to perceive differences in pitch and rhythm, but also showed improvements to a wide range of areas tied to hearing or sound production. This included areas such as speech perception, language development and reading skills—even memorization of fact series (like numbers) where rhyme and rhythm affect recall.
Now, I’m sure the lighting designers reading this would be quick to point out that lighting has an effect on people as well, and they would certainly be right. For example, a 2014 study by the University of Liège identified unique photoreceptor cells in the eye called melanopsin that tie light sensation to the non-visual centers of the brain. When light triggers reactions in melanopsin photoreceptors, various brain functions occur, and different changes in light actually cause us to think better and more clearly. This is actually how our “biological clock” functions. According to the study, “the continuous change of light throughout the day… changes us. Ultimately, these findings argue for the use and design of lighting systems to optimize cognitive performance.”
So what are we to do with this information? Well, it’s clear from science that music and light affect us, and there are many ways that sound engineers and lighting designers can help bring about emotional and physiological responses. That may be a strange and too-scientific way of putting it, but ultimately the goal of a performance is move us. Sound engineer “Pooch” Van Druten hit on this point in an interview we had a few months ago:
“One of my favorite things to do… is to draw the audience in to a really low volume level, like 90 dBa weighted, and then immediately hit them with an impact of a chorus or an 808 kick drum that hits them at 102 dBa. You can watch the entire crowd, and it’s like a wave that washes over the entire crowd. The dynamics that we get to do as live sound engineers is what I love, because it causes emotions to happen with people.”
Of course, dynamics are just one way music moves us. Another way is particular frequencies. That is why we tend to prefer louder bass. Lower frequencies have a stronger physical impact on us (you can “feel the bass”), and thus has a higher impact on both our physiological and emotional responses to the music. Emotional responses are also often triggered by the unexpected, so manipulating the dynamics, frequencies and source location of sound in pleasant but unexpected ways can have emotional impact if done intelligently. By finding ways to create emotional responses to the music, sound engineers can help make the entire experience more memorable.
Good lighting design has similar effects. Everything from brightness to color theory can affect an emotional lighting design. The unexpected plays an important part here as well, with changes in visual “dynamics” and altering light patterns creating shifting emotional moods and increased audience engagement. Good designers use these tools every day. In fact, lighting designer Dan Hadley once told us:
“My goal is to remove people from their otherwise hyper-connected, yet painfully insular online ‘social lives,’ to make them feel part of something bigger. When they allow themselves to be immersed in the event, they can enjoy the communal experience so absent in modern life. Those moments where everything comes together are what stick in people’s minds and hearts. This is when experiences transform into memories—through conveyance of emotions.”
I couldn’t have put it better myself. Do you have any tips on using sound or lighting to evoke emotions? Share them with us in the comments.