the emotional response

This is part II of the Zen Duder article “blah in a general way”, where we discussed the intent of music as being to generate an emotional response in the listener.

Here in part II, we will discuss elements in musical performances that generate the emotional response, and then finally in part III, we will discuss using studio tools to aid in the generation of, or punctuate that all important emotional response so that everyone is happy and smiling.

So as part of the duders research for this article, we were starting at ground zero to look at some of the most highly regarded tracks of all time, with the idea of attempting to figure what it is about them that is so captivating.

We are going to take this all with a large grain of salt, because we will be making a lot of assumptions about how people feel or the criteria used, but still, it is a worthwhile attempt to understand the various elements of music that can capture the listeners attention by generating an emotional response.

First we are going to take a look at pop music and judge the best work in terms of volume of units sold, but if we stopped there we would be doing ourselves a disservice.

The reason is that while by definition pop music will always lead the charts in terms of overall sales, there are some really great and important genres that may not have as broad of an appeal as pop music, but nonetheless have pleased listeners to no end and made very large contributions to musical history.

Even more than that, arguably the musical contributions around and outside of pop music are actually the contributors to define what pop music is, since “pop” is an instantaneous sort of measure. In other words, by definition what is popular is always changing and yet is very strongly influenced by things going on around it.

A good example of this, a perfect example actually, is the influence that jazz and simple 12 bar blues have had to create the genre we know as rock and roll music which is really mostly a pop music genre.

It may seem like there is a lot of separation between a poor old man with one string on his guitar sitting on the railroad tracks in Mississippi singing the blues and Led Zeppelin or the Rolling Stones on stage at Madison Square Garden with electrified guitars and 100,000 watts behind them, but when you dig into the situation, you will find there is actually very little separation musically between the two, and that importantly the former spawned the latter.

Black Snake Moan – Blind Lemon Jefferson (1927) – YouTube

Led Zeppelin – Since I’ve Been Loving You (July 1973) Madison Square Garden NYC

On top of that, the latter are the ones who made all the money and the other guy still has one string on his guitar but this is topic for a different essay.

So called “Jazz” music has never been a genre with as broad an appeal as pop music, and yet there aren’t many people on the planet who haven’t been entertained by Vince Guraldi’s Charlie Brown Christmas whether they recoginze that they were listening to one of the greatest jazz artists of all time or not. Go figure.

So maybe it will also be worth our time in this article to understand what was so captivating about the relationship between Charles Schultz the Charlie Brown creator, and Vince Guraldi, who set the mood for the entire Charlie Brown series, one of the most popular syndications of all time, and had the world listening to jazz without even realizing it.

Vince Guaraldi Trio – Christmas Time Is Here (Instrumental) – YouTube

So at this time we have to be really careful or else we are going to realize that the musical genres are all merely labels and when you start rooting around under the covers, these definitions are all really in a state of flux and it is not an entirely black and white thing, because you can’t put people or music in neat tidy boxes, and the duder doubts many baby boomers who listen to the charlie brown music in their heads every holiday season even know that they are listening to one of the greatest jazz artists of all time rather than pop music.

So it behooves everyone to see musical genres as shades of gray rather than black and white divisions, because they are not simple black and white divisions, they are merely a lame attempt to organize selections at a record shop.

So the duder would encourage everyone reading to stay away from labels. The worst thing you can do to yourself as a musician is to confine yourself to a box that someone else put you in. So Zen Duder sez, play the music. Let someone else figure out what genre you are playing in.

Related to this idea,  some of the best musical performances ever involved musicians taking chances…taking the risk that you might do something awful in persuit of something magical. Taking calculated risks however is what life and music are about.

So in a sense, the reverse of these are both musical tools. That is if you are willing to take chances and if you do not confine yourself to certain staid notions, you may find yourself in a new space as a composer or performer, and you may generate an emotional response in your listening audience.

Furthermore, among musicians themselves, jazz musicians get a lot of respect so this is a genre of particular importance because jazz is where you are just supposed to let it all hang out.

Jazz along with blues are the genres of improvisation. and musical improvisation itself since the beginning of recorded history is really at the roots of all music because improvisation integrates the human mind with the musical realm.

Improvisation produces at times an incredible emotional response in both the player and the listener.

It’s one of the few things left in music that cannot be duplicated by a computer.

The Allman Brothers were one of the most famous of the so called “jam bands”, where back in the day Duane Allman and Dicky Betts would trade improvisational solos and also play together in very memorable harmonic unison.

Playing live they could stretch a 5 minute song until someone cut the power off, and provide an excellent emotional response from the audience while doing it.

The Allman Brothers Band – Blue Sky (Eat A Peach, February 12,1972 …

So were they really rock, jazz, pop, or a jam band? The Duder is still working on that answer.

So when you begin to ask yourself, what is jazz and what is this and that and the other thing its pretty easy to get mixed up. Is it jazz only when a certain set of chords are used or scales are played?

In the duders mind he explains to himself the difference between blues and jazz as blues is improvisation with the soul and jazz is improvisation with the funk.

Rock and roll is 12 bar blues and jazz with only 2 or 3 of the chords.

Pop music can be anything with any roots it all depends on fashion please see part one for details on that.

When we start getting to modern genres and looking at subdivisions of trance or house or techno hip hop trip hop ambient, shoegaze drum and bass, dubstep, etc, it may be worthy not just to study the genres that may come and go, but to study what is behind the genre in terms of where does the emotional interest come from?

Before we get into that however, this came to the top of a search for the most popular songs ever, presumably due to the cleverly worded title.

Top 10 Most Popular Songs Ever – Biggest Hits of All Time – The Gazette Review

Speaking of a cleverly worded title, it’s always a good idea to have a cleverly worded title. Take a page from the marketing department. As in lyrics, all words matter. The title of a song conveys an emotional response in the prospective listener.

We could spend forever dissecting this list or any list or whether or not any song on the list is really worthy, but suffice to say that any track showing up on any top ten of all time list is remarkable. So on the list above, #1 is Bohemian Rhapsody from Queen. No judging, just noting and analyzing.

Queen – Bohemian Rhapsody (Official Video) – YouTube

The first thing the duder would like to note about Queen is that the lead guitarist Brian May built his own guitar.

Red Special – Wikipedia

The Red Special is the electric guitar designed and built by Queen‘s guitarist Brian May and his father, Harold, when Brian was a teenager in the early 1960s.[1][2] The Red Special is also sometimes referred to, by May and by others, as the Fireplace or the Old Lady.

So the Old Lady has a very unique sound, and no other band really sounded quite like them.

It might be worthwhile for ZD to pause right here and note that succumbing to the marketers and trying to get a sound like someone else may not be the ticket my friends given that the #1 track we are discussing was at least in part due to individuality and unique sound, not parroting someone else’s vibe.

So right off the bat this is an interesting analysis because instead of trying to sound like someone else, Brian May was trying to sound completely different and ended up on the top of a list of the number one tracks of all time. Lesson learned. Trying to sound like someone else may not necessarily be the path to success and trying to sound unique and individual may capture the listeners ear.

Queen – We Will Rock You (Official Video) – YouTube

The lead guitarist had a unique sound. That is certainly notable. Following that, the Duder would note that this song above was played at every high school pep rally he ever attended as a teenager and then again a generation later at the kids high school.

So this element has obviously contributed to the popularity of the track. “WE” will “rock” “YOU”. There is a sort of emotional bonding going on there when the music plays and “WE” all start stomping our feet to the heavy tribal beat. You could go so far as to say the track capitalizes on the war like nature of the species and the emotional response is at a very primal sort of level. Are we going to rock you or kick your ass? The answer to that questions probably depends on which listener you talk to and whether or not you are at a pep rally.

So now lets continue to explore a few more tracks, just to get you in the mode of listening to a great track, and thinking to yourself, what is it, exactly, that is so compelling about this track? What is it, specifically, that captured hearts and minds and propelled this song.It may not always be possible. Sometimes you can’t exactly put your finger on it. It’s like trying to explain why your favorite color is green. Please note the extremely memorable lyrics and drum track.

NAOMI ( Curious ) – YouTube

Lets look at the billboard top 100 of all time.

Before we do that however we are going to note the reality that in many cases, popularity is driven somewhat by the hollywood hype machine behind a big record label.

In other words those who have attained the “big label” status, have a marketing machine behind them that can drive sales well beyond what a grass roots sort of effort would achieve. This is why we are taking any specific track we look at with a large grain of salt.

The point being that we are not necessarily associating “the best” with the most well known here. Instead, we are learning how to listen to music for the elements that have generated such an emotional response to the song, so that we may become more enlightened and thus better musicians.

So before we analyze more specific tracks, lets first talk about known musical elements which are used to generate interest and emotional response.

The favorite of the duder, as well as many others who don’t even realize it is the hook. The gift that keeps on giving.

Hook (music) – Wikipedia

You Ask, We Answer: What’s A Hook? : The Record : NPR

The hook keeps you wanting more., the hook that makes you go ahhh when it is delivered to your ears like a drug.

In this track below we have downtempo/jazz [you figure out the genre duder is confused] artist Ulrich Schnauss delivering a fender rhodes riff hook with precision. This is an 8 minute track. The hook is not delivered until late in the song around 6:20. Once he hits you with it, you just want go go and play the song over again. This is a brilliant use of the musical hook in an instrumental by a brilliant and very indivudual artist.

Ulrich Schnauss – Gone Forever HQ – YouTube

So lets lets talk a little more about what a musical hook is and how it’s laid out in a different way than what you have read at wikipedia.

First of all, what is the hook? It really could be anything, but in general the hook is a short, repeated phrase. It could be vocal, it could be instrumental, or it could literally be anything. The point is that the hook is interesting, and it is delivered only after introducing it to you the listener, then making you want it. The more the musicians can make the listener want it before it is delivered, the more effective it is.

So in that sense, the musical hook gets back to that human nature thing about wanting something you can’t have. Your ears want the hook man. However, the musicians have the sole discretion to deliver the hook, and the listener can only want it.

Steeley Dan aka Dan Becker [RIP] and Donald Fagen were big users of studio musicians to create that extra little element of interest in the track, and in the process some of these musicians while taking chances created some of the most memorable hooks and musical moments of all time, such as the drum solo finishing up on Aja. Is it pop, jazz, or rock? Not sure.

Steely Dan – Aja – YouTube

The above link to aja also gets into another extremely useful and versatile technique, that of changing the rhythm, tempo or time signature during the track for a bridge, break or chorus or anywhere else for that matter. The listeners ear is sensitive to rhythm and tempo changes, so this is a very effective way for a musician to engage or re engage the listener dueing the track.

Another example of a technique used throughout the ages is the call/response technique where one voice or instrument calls, and the other responds. Anyone can call, and anyone can respond.

Call and response is a favorite of many genres, such as blues, jazz and even hip hop. This is music, there are no actual rules you have to go by.

Songfacts – Call-and-response Songs

Interestingly, this sort of behavior is also very common in nature [birds, wolves and so forth], so this call and response element of modern music has primeval roots, thus it taps in at a deep emotional level, and can be very effective in gaining an emotional response from the listener.

Call and response (music) – Wikipedia

call and response demonstration – YouTube

Build Better Melodies by using Call and Response

Finally to finish up on call and response, did you know you can call and respond to yourself? So most people well versed in blues or jazz already know this and are yawning, but if this is a new idea to you, please try calling and responding to yourself it can be a lot of fun and generate a lot of emotional interest regardless of the genre.

Never could figure out what this one was below. Mr Beck calls and responds to himself all over the place in this jazz funk fusion classic, done by a blues based rock and roller go figure. This was at the time and still remains some of the most creative electric guitar work ever done.  It’s a goosebump giver and it generates an emotional response. Please as you listen, study this track and try to pick out the call/response element as well as the emotional interest elements. Finally please notice the bell bottoms. Could be pop.

Jeff Beck – Blow by Blow 1975 (Album) [Side A] – YouTube

Arguably the most compelling instrument of all is one we each carry around with us every day, that of the human voice. Given that everyone has a voice, human beings are extremely sensitive to every nuance a voice can make. It is the easiest instrument with which to engage your listening audience.

Nuance – Wikipedia

Genres without vocals may have to work harder to engage the listener, whereas tracks with vocals have the advantage of directly communicating with the listener.

No discussion about vocals in music would be complete without noting the strong relationship to poetry, and that some of the best songwriters are actually poets [that genre thing again].

Rod McKuen – Wikipedia

This is why some of the best instrumentalists are known to speak through their instruments. In other words, the performance although instrumental, speaks to the listener in some way. The saxophone work of Stan Getz playing with Charlie Byrd is the example we will use, although there are many good examples.

Stan Getz – Samba Triste // JazzONLYJazz – YouTube

So after listening to this, the duder will note that it’s one thing to be a great player. The next step, the extra credit step, is talking to your audience with your instrument instead of playing it. This is in a nutshell what separates an excellent player from a goosebump giver.

For that, we will use another example, that of Stevie Ray Vaughn channeling Jimi Hendrix. If you watch his face carefully, he is in another world. He is drawing upon something else, something from within, and the music is channeling through him.

Not to get metaphysical on you but this below is what the duder refers to as a goosebump giver. If you are giving people goose bumps my friend, you are on the right path because goose bumps are a physical manifestation of an emotional response.

Stevie Ray Vaughan Voodoo Child Live From Austin Texas 1080P …

Next up, directly tapping into human emotions –

One of the most effective ways to engage a listener is merely to work with human nature. When people hear a sad song with sad lyrics, the human emotion of empathy comes into play. For a more upbeat track, you can tap into excitement. For a very lyrical song, you can use the element of drama.

So it turns out that a lot of research has been done into the area of human emotions, and 27 unique human emotions have been identified. Please feel free to go through this list, and understand how you might tap into these various emotions to get an emotional response from your audience.

The 27 human emotions

  • Admiration
    Aesthetic Appreciation
    Empathetic pain
    Sexual desire

So within this list, there may be certain emotions that you don’t want to dabble in, such as disgust…that could be dangerous but it has been done. Ozzy Osborne was pretty good at probing the dark side and they were extremely successful in that endeavor. The duder watched his 8 track player eat at least 3 8 track tapes of paranoid as a teenager much to the delight of their label.

Black Sabbath – “War Pigs” Live Paris 1970 – YouTube

Following that, while not a human emotion, the subject of spirituality and music have long been intertwined and should be discussed and well understood.

The roots of music come from the continent of Africa, and in Africa, much of music is spiritual in nature…..tribal…lots of drums. Therefore, even if you are a musician who does not dwell in this arena, it is important to have an awareness of the huge significance of the close relationship between music and spirituality.

The duder is not suggesting that you put people into a trance, but it has been done. You have to ask yourself, how is african drumming and yoga related? It’s all about the emotional response.

African Journey & The Healing Drum – YouTube

As a matter of fact, there is an entire genre of music called trance and it is worth our time to note a few things about the genre in general.

The first is the significance of BPM. Theres is a little bit of magic around 136-140 bpm which is roughly twice the resting human heart rate. Without getting deep into the physiology, it has the striking effect of getting people’s feet on the floor as well as a trance like effect.

We will note that some genres of music depend heavily on bpm status, with house music being a good example. House music at 115 bpm is not house music, but add a bounce and you have hip hop. So add this to our list of emotional response generators….tempo.

Markus Schulz feat Carrie Skipper – Never Be The Same Again (Markus Schulz Coldharbour Club Mix) – YouTube

After listening to this track, you should now be proud to tell the Duder what the hook is beep beep. Killer hook, which propelled this track to trance stardom at twice the resting human heart rate. There are many elements in this track to study for their effect on emotional response generation attested to by the endless remixes of this track.

Now for your reading pleasure, a BPM guide to “Genres”.

  • Hip Hop is around 80-115 BPM
  • Triphop / Downtempo around 60-100 BPM
  • Concert marches are typically ~120 BPM.
  • House varies between 118 and 135 BPM
    • UK garage/2-step is usually between 130-135 BPM
    • UK funky is around 130 BPM
  • Techno 120-160 BPM
    • Generally around 120-135
    • Acid Techno 135-150
    • Schranz around 150
  • Dubstep is around 140 BPM 70’s to 100 (mostly 80-90)
    • Dubstep is not 140 BPM. I don’t know why that number gets thrown around, but most dubstep is from the 70’s to 100, with most falling in-between 80 and 90. In many songs it’s often for a double-time break to happen, at which point it will reach 140~200, respectively, but it shouldn’t be timed that way. – n_b
    • *Dubstep is 70 – 75 BPM, which is equivalent to 140 – 150 BPM depending on if you count the snare on the 2 and 4 or the 3 of the measure.
  • Trap is around 140 BPM
  • Screamers are usually 130-150 BPM
  • Hardstyle is around 150 BPM
  • Juke/Footwork is around 160 BPM
  • Drum and Bass averages a BPM of 160-180
    • Oldschool jungle is around 160-170
    • Drum & Bass and Drumstep and Neurofunk 170-180

Some of the basic tempo markings

  • Largo is 40-60 BPM
  • Larghetto is 60-66 BPM
  • Adagio is 66-76 BPM
  • Andante is 76-108 BPM
  • Moderato is 108-120 BPM
  • Allegro is 120-168 BPM
  • Presto is 168-200 BPM
  • Prestissimo is 200+ BPM

followed by some actual sampled quantatative results

Hip Hop
Songs sampled : 1477
Average BPM : 108.1097
Std. Deviation : 30.2689

Songs sampled : 1339
Average BPM : 112.5774
Std. Deviation : 28.9311

Songs sampled : 1145
Average BPM : 115.2637
Std. Deviation : 28.0902

Songs sampled : 1214
Average BPM : 120.7607
Std. Deviation : 32.9120

Songs sampled : 1328
Average BPM : 120.3921
Std. Deviation : 20.2962

code that generated this data available for free at:

Lastly, lets look at a direct emotional response mechanism. Surprise ! So we are not talking about wearing a funny looking hat kind of surprise although there is no problem with that.

In fact there seems to be a high correlation between costume flamboyance and willingness to take chances in music. Think about it.

James Brown performs “Please Please Please” at the TAMI Show (Live) – YouTube

In 1968 Eric Clapton dressed like one of the Queen’s soldiers and was dosing out surprise after surprise on the electric guitar.  Something got him knighted.  Eric Clapton has stated in interviews that in fact one of the aims of Cream was to musically shock people and the costuming aided in that effect.  Shock is just a more extreme form of surprise.

Jazz Pioneer Lonnie Liston Smith of the Cosmic Echoes

The Zen Duder had the pleasure of listening to Lonnie live on many occasions, taking chances and generating emotional interest with cosmic funk and spiritual sounds. Much of what you have read here today is a result of simply listening. They called this “jazz” or jazz fusion and a bunch of other stuff but what was really, was just great music that generated an emotional response that had no exactly proper spot in the record store. This track featured below, “Expansions” is on a short list of ZD jazz music reference tracks for mixing and mastering. A fantastic job done here all the way around, and a great message tapping into all the right emotions. A jazz or something classic.

Lonnie Liston Smith – Expansions (Official Audio) – YouTube

The point being, the element of surprise can be used very effectively in music today particularly given what is possible in post production, but also in live playing. As an example maybe boom you bridge into a new track without missing a beat. Surprise is an arena where you are free to show off your mad skills. You are only limited by your ideas in this realm.

So this is an arena where you can be totally creative. As an excercise, get together with your players and think of ways to surprise your audience musically or whatever. Please never forget that as a musician, you are also an entertainer, and the element of surprise is used all over entertainment because it generates an emotional response.

So now that we have covered a lot of ground from Blind Lemon Jefferson to Jose Amnesia, as an exercise please take a look at the billboard all time top 100 songs, and listen for all of the various techniques used to engage the listener and generate an emotional response, now that you are tuned into the subject.

Hot 100 55th Anniversary: The All-Time Top 100 Songs | Billboard

Finally in this rather long winded and winding essay, the duder would like to mention the “unsung heroes” of music.

By this we mean the enormous contributions of various musicians, often studio musicians, background vocalists, etc, whose contribution to the song can be a tremendous part of the emotional impact.

There are countless fabulous studio musicians, backup singers, etc. who are always making these kinds of musical contributions to a track however large or small, by creating music and vocal elements that adds emotional interest.

This helps the producers in the studio to create memorable performances, which is the subject of part III so please stay tuned.

Aditional Reading suggestions:

Review of the book “The Universal Sense: How hearing shapes the mind” (PDF Download Available)

Different sounds cause specific emotional responses


The Zen Duder

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1 Response to the emotional response

  1. Pingback: blah in a general way | The Zen Duders Blog

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