‘The Tingle Factor’ used to be a programme on Radio 4, a kind of second cousin to ‘Desert Island Discs’, on which reasonably well-known people (I hesitate to use the word “celebrities”), usually musical, artistic or literary personalities, discussed which pieces of music made them “tingle” or made the hair stand up on the back of their neck, and why. I expect most people have their own personal ‘Desert Island Discs’, and lists of significant songs and pieces. Remember the character in Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity who made endless musical lists? As a student, me and my friends were always making “mixes”, cassette tapes of our favourites, for parties, for driving, for working to, for chilling on a Sunday afternoon in bed…. Sometimes when I hear a song from that time (mid-1980s), I am instantly transported back to the attic room in my hall of residence, or to a pub, or a party, or a club somewhere in Exeter. I only have to hear ‘Road to Nowhere’ by Talking Heads or ‘Don’t You (Forget About Me)’ by Simple Minds, and I am back in a crowded student club near the River Exe, on the dance floor, my doorkeys tucked into my shoe….
We gather music along the way and it forms a soundtrack to our lives, evoking memories, good and bad, and a few bars of a significant song or piece of music can create an instant reaction, a ‘tingle’. Music can arouse very powerful emotions. Psychologists suggest that there is something about the way music unfolds over time, as do emotions, and when we hear music we re-live the emotional sequence that happened the first time we heard it. This makes music so much more powerful than a smell or a painting: it draws us into a very special sequence of relived experiences. Music also raises our expectations, simply by granting or delaying a bar or beat in a piece, or by leaving a harmonic progression unresolved, or by using a device such as a Picardy Third. We would not be moved by music that fulfils our expectations; our emotions are at their highest when we are un-expected.
Then there is the music that seems to have seeped into the collective consciousness: Richard Strauss’s ‘Also Sprach Zarathustra’ is synonymous with space travel, specifically the Apollo moon landings, after it was used in Kubrick’s film ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’, even for those people who are too young to remember the film or the moon landings. Or the Andante from Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 21, often simply called ‘Elvira Madigan’ after the 1967 Swedish film of the same title in which the music memorably featured. Or the Adagietto from Mahler’s Fifth Symphony (‘Death in Venice’). Or Nimrod, from Elgar’s Enigma Variations. Hear just a few bars and one instantly thinks of poppies, the First War and the annual, sombre ceremony at the Cenotaph on Remembrance Sunday. And – dare I mention it? – ‘Nessun Dorma’, now forever associated with football. We are constantly bombarded with soundtracks and jingles, musical tags and cover versions, which induce an unexpected “tingle” in us.
The other week, I was listening to Radio 3’s Breakfast programme, as I often do when I’m surfacing for the day with my first of many cups of tea, and I heard a piece which immediately took me back to my family home in Rickmansworth, where we lived when I was at secondary school in the early 1980s. The piece, for solo oboe and orchestra, was ‘The Watermill’, by Ronald Binge, composer of “light music”, and was used as the theme tune for the 1970s children’s tv series ‘The Secret Garden’. I loved the series, and the book it was based on: as an only child, I had (and still have) a vivid and romantic imagination, and was used to keeping myself entertained, making up stories and plays on my own in the garden or at the piano. But I wasn’t remembering the tv series when I heard ‘The Watermill’: I was recalling my father playing it on the clarinet, with me accompanying him on the piano.
Another piece which always reminds me of my father and sends a distinct tingle down my spine, is Gerald Finzi’s Five Bagatelles for clarinet and piano. My father was an accomplished amateur clarinettist who, sadly, had to give up the instrument some years ago because it was affecting his teeth. We often used to play the Finzi Bagatelles together, our favourite movements being the Prelude and the Forlana (which formed part of my Grade 6 clarinet exam). Thanks to a neat little gadget on my computer, I have created a personal ringtone for my father, based on Finzi’s Prelude!
There are many other pieces which induce a tingle in me, and some of these are distinct from my Desert Island Discs, which are pieces I simply cannot live without. Many of these pieces can transport me instantly to a point sometime in my recent past, others evoke a vague memory of a person or a place. Some are just heart-achingly beautiful: music that stops one in one’s tracks, or makes one cry. One or two are so painful I can hardly bear to listen them. Here is just a small selection of my ‘tingle’ factor music:
Beethoven – Opp 23 and 96 Sonatas for violin and piano
Beethoven – Op 110, slow movement and fugue
Schubert – D899 no. 4
Schubert – D960 1st movement
Schubert – D940 Fantasie
Schubert – Op Post 148 Notturno
Janacek – On An Overgrown Path (all of it)
Part – Speigel im Speigel
Mozart – Rondo in A Minor K511
Handel – Harp Concerto, first movement
Chopin – Impromptu in G flat, Op 51
Joni Mitchell – ‘Both Sides Now’
Ian Bostridge singing Handel’s ‘Ombra Mai Fu’
Franck – Sonata in A, last movement
It says something about the music of Schubert that I have highlighted four pieces by him. There are, of course, many, many more!