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Why do some songs send chills down your spine or give you goosebumps? We explore the science of how music induces awe — and how that affects our well-being.
In the last episode of our awe series, Dacher explores the mysteries of how music inspires awe and can transport us to another space and time with sound alchemist Laura Inserra. Later, we hear from the scientist who showed how awe-inspiring songs change the way we think and feel.
This is the last episode in our special series The Science of Awe. Check out the last four releases in our feed for Happiness Breaks that will help guide you to experience more awe in your life, and episodes of The Science of Happiness about the other profound ways that awe affects — and more places to find it.
Our host, Dacher Keltner, has a new book out about awe. It’s called Awe: The New Science of Everyday Wonder and How It Can Transform Your Life. Learn more here: https://tinyurl.com/3uzk8m5r
Laura Inserra is an instrumentalist, composer, producer, and a teacher who works with music to help people tap into a sense of awe.
Follow Laura on Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/laura_inserra/
Follow Laura on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/laurainserra
Check out Laura’s website: https://www.laurainserra.com
Qihao Ji is an assistant professor of Communication at Marist College
Learn more about Ji and his work: https://www.marist.edu/communication-arts/faculty/qihao-ji
Resources from The Greater Good Science Center:
How Music Bonds us Together: https://tinyurl.com/5x5xxnmz
Where Music and Empathy Converge in the Brain https://tinyurl.com/84sep62v
How Many Emotions Can Music Make You Feel: https://tinyurl.com/8pxud5bt
More Resources About Awe and Music
Bluefield Daily Telegraph - Music: A sense of Awe and Admiration: https://tinyurl.com/5eyc4ehw
NYT - How a Bit of Awe Can Improve Your Health: https://tinyurl.com/4zdzcusk
Yamaha Music- The Science of Awe (And Why It Matters): https://tinyurl.com/4njv9mpb
Tell us about your experiences with music awe. Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org or use the hashtag #happinesspod.
Help us share The Science of Happiness!
Leave us a 5-star review on Apple Podcasts or share this link with someone who might like the show: https://tinyurl.com/2p9h5aap
Laura Inserra Well, I remember that I had this experience with a guitar that my brother brought back home when I was, I think, six or seven. And I tapped with a pen on top of the strings. And I remember these incredible reverberations and the harmonics of this sound and the smell, you know, the fresh wood of the guitar.
Laura Inserra I could really see now that there is something beyond my eyes and so at that point, music was somehow informing me. Yeah. and I just started to tap on everything. But at the same time, I have to say that the percussion, you know, the pulse of life- The rhythm, yeah. It was the most powerful way in which I could express myself.
Dacher Keltner The philosopher Susan Sontag said it best: we experience music with our bodies. It’s a human universal to get the chills or tear up when we’re moved by a song, the same as when we’re moved by a breath-taking view. Music can be a powerful elicitor of awe. I’m Dacher Keltner. This is The Science of Happiness.
Dacher Keltner We’ve been exploring the Science of Awe on our show. That’s a-w-e. The basic emotion that we feel when we encounter vast mysteries that we don’t understand. This week we examine how certain kinds of music can make us feel goose-tingles, tears- those bodily sensations of awe. If you’ve missed the other episodes of our Science of Awe series, I highly recommend checking them out. We’ve looked at research behind feeling awe in nature, through community, and in the last few Happiness Breaks we’ve shared meditations to help you bring more awe into your life. They’re really some of my favorite episodes.
Dacher Keltner Our guest today is Laura Inserra—a musician who deeply felt awe through music growing up, and so she made it part of her life’s mission to help evoke that feeling in others. Later, we’ll get into the science around what types of music are most likely to make us feel awe. And, how awe-inspiring music affects our motivation to do good. More after this break.
Dacher Keltner Welcome back to The Science of Happiness. I’m Dacher Keltner. Music stirs awe in us by opening up our minds to the sublime. It can make us feel joy or anxiety, laugh or cry. And music can make us feel awe—and we’re exploring the science of that today. With us is Laura Inserra. Laura is an instrumentalist, composer, producer, and a teacher who works with music to help people tap into their feelings of awe, and all the other emotions that bring us a sense of well-being. Laura, thank you for joining us on The Science of Happiness.
Laura Inserra Thank you so much, Dacher. Such a joy to be here.
Dacher Keltner When I teach awe and we get to music, I always ask people to talk about a first experience of awe in music. You know, it’s a concert or a family song. .And what was it for you, like where did you start to have these vibrating experiences, like the transcended in music?
Laura Inserra For me, music- it was a shelter because I grew up in Sicily in a very intense environment. So I remember these states of awe openings when I was just jamming with my friends. And it was the only time where there was not intensity around us.
Laura Inserra There’s this one image I have of being exposed of a drummer in Sicily, his name Alfio Antico he plays tammorra, this very traditional African drum. And he was just doing this rhythm. I will never forget that rhythm, those triplets, and we were just in this rural square place in a medieval town. And I felt that I could sense the memory of those stones. and get a sense of, losing time and space and feeling the whole existence being there available in that moment in time. And I felt so safe, where you feel that you truly are just in sync with life itself.
Dacher Keltner Suzanne Langer, who’s this great philosopher she really talks about, that one of the points of art is to quote “objectify feeling or to like give us an awareness of parts of our minds feeling,” emotional parts of our minds, states of consciousness that we might not have access to, right? That are way beyond the ordinary laws of psychology really. And I’m curious how you think about that.
Laura Inserra For me it’s a sensing, and it’s not very rational, so there is this information that happens not from a rational point of view but it’s from all these other amazing gifts and powers that we have being humans, it’s sympathetic resonance. I believe my body is resonating with yours. And there we go. Like, I’m moving towards you and there’s this listening and deep presence
Dacher Keltner Did you know there’s this new science of synchronization that’s produced by music and it synchronizes our heart rate and our breathing which is so fundamental over rhythm and certain patterns of brain activation and body movements and tapping and moving…that state of relationality that a lot of people feel in music, like, I am with this collective being, or this is different than my individual self.
Dacher Keltner I think awe has this property too. Like every individual by definition almost is logically required to have their own individual experience, but yet at the same time…
Laura Inserra it’s universal
Dacher Keltner Right, there’s this universal merging. You know, it was striking. Laura, Shuka, our show’s producer and I, you know, were privileged enough to go through one of your experiences or relationships to Metamusic.
Dacher Keltner We are lying down with head pillows underneath our heads and our knees, and then comforted by a thick blanket. Feels really good.
Laura Inserra Let’s find even more. The most comfortable position you can get if you still need to move your body a little bit. And move your attention gently to your breathing.
Dacher Keltner And it was a profound experience. I just felt like the sounds were touching me. They’re reaching different themes in life. How do you use sounds to produce awe in people? What do you think is going on?
Laura Inserra Well, first of all, a state of presence and deep listening. With the eyes closed, just be open to receive any guidance, let any emotion go through your body as needed. And enjoy it. And I think again, when we tap into deep listening, there is so much more room to really experience the power of reality- what we call reality.
Laura Inserra I believe that when we tap into that presence and we give ourselves that space of listening, you are aware of something that probably was always available around us, but now yeah. We are tapping into it and we are all agreed and feeling safe enough To share that space. And, and be open to it.
Dacher Keltner One of the striking things that happened for me is how your process evoked memories. And there was one particular instrument, where you shook it and it sounded like the flow of river to me or sort of rivers and streams, going over rocks. And I spent a lot of time wandering around rivers as a child with my family and my brother in particular. And it just like, I just was lost in these patterns of memory. And I remember interviewing Yumi Kendall, who’s been a guest on our show who’s a cellist for the Philadelphia Symphony, and she told me about producing a piece of music and she plays the cello and she was lost in the piece. And then suddenly these memories of her grandfather came to her and he had passed away recently and just, she was overwhelmed.
Yumi Kendall This angelic, like, bright white light, like the heavens opened and is super peaceful soprano singing, angel voices kind of feeling. And I got goosebumps. I felt like grandfather was listening.
Dacher Keltner It is this mystery to me and scientifically, I think we’re still at the very early stages of understanding this, how patterns of sound produce emotions, like contentment and beauty are really, that’s a hard question. Alan Cowen, who’s this data scientist, emotion scientist I work with. And he’s found that even Americans listening to traditional Chinese music, they feel 13 distinct emotions from love to energy, to horror to awe. And there’s research showing from the University of California that music does activate kind of regions of the brain involved in memory about self. What do you think about that? Like where, what is going on with these transporting narratives of music, of like wow, I’m thinking about the past, or an old relative. How do you make sense of that?
Laura Inserra For me? More than there is something in the brain that gets activated as a memory, Yeah. I believe that memory is in our cells. In our body. Yeah. somehow you’re being exposed to something that is again, resonating with parts of your body, with cells. And those memories, they start to activate, I think other elements of. emotion.
And so for me, I always relate to music as part of my environment. Yeah. And so I grew up, uh, again, being very lucky to play all of these instruments probably because Sicily we had so many different conquerors from different cultures. Our language has, you know, many mixed words from German to, you know, all of the different cultures. So I feel almost that in my genes, maybe there is memory. I don’t know.
Laura Inserra It could be prenatal, it could be ancestry. Everything vibrates. So everything is music, including your body.
Laura Inserra You can gently start over your hands or your feet. Stretching, stretching. Stretching is good. I have so much gratitude to have this body, which is pure orchestra.
Dacher Keltner Wow. It’s incredible. I mean, it’s unbelievable for me that sound waves come into your ear and the next thing you know, you’re drifting in a canyon . I mean, explain that one, you know? So many times I would just get these big rushes of chills, you know, just rushes of goosebumps and which are for me some of my favorite sensations. And right now, I look around and things seem really beautiful and soft and tender. And imagine, you know, just in a little soundscape or whatever you would call it. That’s profound
Dacher Keltner Well, Laura Inserra, thank you for coming on our show today and thanks for all you do.
Laura Inserra Thank you Dacher.
Dacher Keltner Up next we’re going to hear more about what kinds of music make us feel awe. And how that affects our motivation in life.
Qihao Ji If you say listening to music can get you to feel goosebumps or lump in the throat. What good does that serve? And I think that was the question we were trying to answer.
Dacher Keltner More, after this break.
Dacher Keltner I’m Dacher Keltner, welcome back to The Science of Happiness.
When we listen to slow, melodic music—we feel relaxed, calm, sometimes even tired.
And research shows this kind of music activates the vagus nerve, which helps regulate our heart rates and immune systems. Fast, dissonant music, on the other hand, feels jarring, making us feel anxious and fearful. This tension of sounds creates physical tension in our bodies. Our heart rate might increase, and our blood pressure. And according to research by psychologist Qihao Ji, This song almost always will make us feel awe. Our podcast’s executive producer Shuka Kalantari spoke with Qihao Ji about what this awe inducing music does for our sense of meaning and motivation.
Shuka Kalantari Qihao Ji was about 13 or 14 years old when his father brought home their first CD player and a copy of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.
Qihao Ji I was sitting on my bed and looking out my window and then suddenly this, symphony number five, kind of like a wave rushing to my ear. And I just can’t wrestle my mind around why that symphony has such a strong power in my mind and in my heart. And I guess since then, that kind of planted a seed in my mind.
Shuka Kalantari That seed led Qihao Ji to study the psychology of music. Ji is an assistant professor of communications at Marist College in New York.
Qihao Ji If you say listening to music can get you to feel goosebumps or lump in the. What good does that serve? And I think that was the question.
Shuka Kalantari He recruited 52 students to his lab to study what happens to us after we hear awe-inspiring music. Some listened to two minutes of this song. It’s called “Victory” by the Norwegian composer Thomas Bergesen.
Qihao Ji Some acoustic features such as unexpected harmonies, sudden dynamics, Or even the major shift in energy and volume. All these are considered as, typical, music features that can, lead to, the sense of awe. Or the sense of vastness.
Shuka Kalantari Another group of students heard two minutes of silence. Afterwards they all answered questions about their emotional states.
Qihao Ji We measured. The perceived awe as well as inspiration. We also measured a whole list of motivational outcomes. For instance, whether or not they would want to volunteer, whether or not they would want to. be more altruistic and so on and so forth.
Shuka Kalantari The people who listened to the song Victory felt more inspired.
Qihao Ji Inspiration is those moments when you are feeling highly motivated. to do something, to be someone. If they listen to this type of music, they would report that there is more sense of meaningfulness in their lives.
Shuka Kalantari And they were more willing to volunteer their time to help others.
Qihao Ji What these findings suggest to us is that perhaps awe is this particular or specific type of emotion that will drive us as individuals, as human beings to reach to others to make connections to do things.
Shuka Kalantari Qihao Ji wanted to know if just awe-inducing music makes us feel these ways, or could any upbeat music have the same effect? So he did a second experiment to find out. One group of people heard awe-inspiring songs like Victory. And another heard Yakety Sax, by Boots Randolf. People liked the Boots Randolf song, they reported feeling better after hearing it. But it didn’t elicit feelings of awe. It didn’t make them want to seek more meaning in their lives, or volunteer their time. They just felt good.
Qihao Ji Once we feel the sense of awe, we typically would want to understand the message, the environment, or the condition in which we find ourselves. Naturally you want to reach out to others, you want to understand why there is this sense of vastness in front of you. And I think this allowing to understand and make connections is the key through which many of our participants reported the need or the willingness to volunteer their time or search for meaning in their lives.
Dacher Keltner On our next episode of the science of happiness we explore how the spaces we inhabit- our homes, our offices, or even our telephones, influence our sense of social connectedness.
Monica Guzman If a photo frame or anything in your space can stimulate a thought of warmth, you know, there’s my husband, there’s my friend, there’s that time when I felt good. And, and there’s that belonging. even that thought for a moment coming in, I think. Just calms you. It does it, it calms you down.
Dacher Keltner We also look at how loneliness affects our mental health, and steps we can take to build our own communities. I’m Dacher Keltner. Thanks for listening to The Science of Happiness. We also have links to past episodes in our series The Science of Awe, as well guided meditations on how to cultivate awe in your own life.There’s also a link to my new book, Awe: The New Science of Everyday Wonder and How It Can Transform Your Life. Our Executive producer of Audio is Shuka Kalantari. Our producer is Haley Gray. Sound designer Jennie Cataldo of Accompany Studios. And our associate producers are Ruth Dusseault and Bria Suggs. Our editor in chief is Jason Marsh. The Science of Happiness is a co-production of UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center and PRX. The Science of Happiness is a co-production of UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center and PRX. Thanks for joining us.