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The tingle factor

August 1, 2014

Have you ever had that experience—listening to a piece of music, when all of a sudden something uber-beautiful happens and your brain tingles, your scalp takes on a life of its own and you feel waves of electricity pulse over your skin? This is a variety of autonomous sensory meridian response, or ASMR. It doesn’t have to be connected to music, but it is often associated with sounds. Not everyone experiences this, and it can be hard to convince those who don’t that such sensations are really connected to the intangibilities of music or sound. To point out a more familiar sensation, an extreme form might occur through the reaction you have from the squeaking of chalk on a blackboard or the scraping of a carelessly wielded knife on a dinner plate.

As with the case of ‘taste’ in music, this is an entirely personal thing, though I’m hoping enough of you share the experience to know what I’m talking about. Once you’ve had a strong ASMR association with a piece of music you can find yourself experiencing the effects without even hearing the piece, but just by thinking about it. It might arise from the subtlest of nuances or the grandest of climaxes, but once it’s ‘clicked’, it can become a lifetime’s pilgrimage seeking similar experiences.

This is a small selection from a personal list of ASMR fragments: pieces of music which almost always deliver that ‘kick’ for this particular writer. Does it feature any of your own, I wonder?


Johann Sebastian Bach, the ‘composer’s composer’, left us such a rich legacy it would be hard to leave him out. As far as the ‘tingle factor’ is concerned, you might like to try his Magnificat (8.554056). This is full of gorgeous moments, but the Suscepit Israel section with its soaring oboe over intertwining vocal lines is simultaneously simple and complex and seems to make the world stand still for its all too brief duration.


Alban Berg’s Violin Concerto (8.554755), dedicated “To the memory of an angel”, has moving enough associations, inspired as it was by the death from polio of Manon Gropius, the 18 year-old daughter of Alma Mahler and Walter Gropius. The entire piece is a luminous masterwork; but one particular moment which can deliver a big shot of ASMR is where Bach’s solidly harmonic chorale Es ist genug emerges from the orchestra’s complex atonal score.


The music of Carlo Gesualdo, that most tortured of musical souls, is often heart-rendingly beautiful, dramatic and shockingly contemporary in sound, witness Invan, dunque, o crudele from his Books of Madrigals (8.572137).This closes with the words, “since my cruel fate gives voice to silence and to death”. The musical translation of the anguished suffering can be devastatingly affecting.


Polish composers from the last century were masters in finding new atmospheres and sonorities, and the amazing opening of Witold Lutosławski’s Livre pour orchestre (8.553625) may well have you hooked.


Bohuslav Martinů is a strong candidate for ASMR experiences. With his intensely colourful orchestration and powerful major/minor chord progressions there are numerous works to explore. Try the fabulous opening of the First Symphony (8.553348) or its profound Largo.


Olivier Messiaen’s music is highly charged with the weight of strong spiritual faith, mighty harmonic power and the essence of nature meeting music in the form of birdsong. His organ music is perhaps the most influential of the 20th century, and the Livre du Saint-Sacrement (8.572436-37) is a summation of a lifetime’s work with the instrument. It has plenty of moments which might trigger something unforgettable, from the opening grandeur of the Adoro te, to the dark mysteries of Puer natus est nobis or the stirring La Resurrection du Christ.


Darius Milhaud’s La Création de monde (8.557287) is another work with a potent atmosphere and some richly expressive colours and conflicting tonalities. Even if it doesn’t connect with your own ASMR synapses, there are plenty of fun jazz-influenced sections to ensure you leave in a good mood!


Maurice Ravel’s opera L’enfant et les sortilèges (8.660215) is filled with magic, not least during Music of insects, of frogs, of toads. Ravel lays down a shimmering nocturnal scene with quiet strings, the hoot of an owl and other birdsong, from which emerges a chorus of croaking. This may be an opera about children and toys, but things are often far from secure, comforting and tingle-free in the garden.


Arvo Pärt’s Tabula Rasa (8.554591) might have been written solely for the purpose of having ASMR people in a permanent state of tingle. The sonorities of the prepared piano have an otherworldly effect, particularly in the second movement Silentium.


Carl Nielsen’s Fifth Symphony (8.550743) is an altogether stunning work, but there is a thrilling episode in the second movement in which the snare drum is instructed to play “entirely freely with all possible fantasy” in a cadenza that battles against a slowly evolving but turbulent mass of orchestral sound.

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