Or: Does the Smell of Popcorn Make My Mix Sound Different?

I was sitting in the control room a couple of weeks ago, reviewing a mix with the producer of the piece. I had been mixing all morning and was satisfied with the way everything was sounding and fitting together. About half-way through the review, the smell of freshly popped popcorn wafted through the control room from the nearby lounge.

As my mind drifted to the thought of popcorn and melted butter, suddenly the bottom end of the mix didn’t sound right. The kick drum and bass guitar weren’t gelling as they had all morning. There was a build up of energy around 160Hz – an annoying boom I hadn’t heard, or more accurately, noticed before. Things just weren’t right now.

Wow, the smell of popcorn just changed my finely-crafted mix of 4 hours!

This phenomenon is something I’ve been noticing for as many years as I’ve been mixing music. My mental state changes the perception of what I’m hearing while mixing. We’ve all experienced the “morning after” mix listen. You throw the mix up that you spent all last night working on. In the very first few bars it becomes blatantly obvious that the rhythm guitar is way too loud. “What was I thinking last night?” “How come I didn’t notice that before?”

There are scores of studies on how music affects the brain but how does the brain affect the way we hear music?

Music stimulates various parts of the brain, making it an effective therapeutic or mood-altering tool. Music’s pitch, rhythm, meter and timbre are processed in various parts of the brain ranging from the prefrontal cortex to the hippocampus to the parietal lobe. Rhythm and pitch are primarily left brain hemisphere functions, while timbre and melody are processed primarily in the right hemisphere. Meter is processed in both hemispheres.

It makes sense to me that the opposite is also true. The mood we are in, or what we are thinking about, affects how we hear music. This used to frustrate me when mixing but now I use it as a tool. I’ve learned to consciously “toggle” my brain between two states when mixing. I refer to them and the “analytical” and the “musical” states.

In the analytical state, I’m concentrating on the mechanics of the mix. What tracks am I using for the drums? Should the bass be mono or stereo? How should the guitars be panned? Should the guitars be panned? What type of buss compression best suits this piece, etc.?

In the musical state, I’m actually listening to the mix as a listener. This is the “morning after” state of mind. I’ve trained my mind to be able to toggle between these states at will. It produces better mixes more quickly and avoids that dreaded “morning after” experience.

It’s fairly easy to do and similar to mind relaxation or stress relieving exercises. A WebMD.com article by Jeannette Moninger entitled “10 Relaxation Techniques That Zap Stress Fast” summed my personal mind “toggle” up in step three.

Be present.

Slow down.

“Take 5 minutes and focus on only one behavior with awareness.” Notice how the air feels on your face when you’re walking and how your feet feel hitting the ground. Enjoy the texture and taste of each bite of food.

When you spend time in the moment and focus on your senses, you should feel less tense.

I take a minute to sit back in my chair, have a piece of fruit or get up to use the restroom. As soon as my mind relaxes, I’m listening in the “musical” state of mind. I’m no longer thinking about the mechanics of the mix. I’m just letting the music flow over me. Invariably, I’ll be snapped out of this state by something “non-musical” or just plain wrong in the mix. I’m back in the “analytical” state in a flash but I’ve discovered something in my journey to the “musical” state that I might have never noticed or took much longer to notice.

Apparently this is also the “smell the popcorn” state of mind.

So did the smell of popcorn change the way my mix sounded or did it simply allow me to hear how it really sounded?

Dennis Wall is Chief Engineer / Guru at Man Made Music. Ask him about the mental state of mixing music on Twitter @offdwall.

The chills. No, I don’t mean that feeling I had shoveling my driveway this morning. Or that feeling when you’re down with the flu.

The chills. The chills you get down the back of your neck. The feeling when the hairs stand up and the goose bumps suddenly appear on your arms.

That feeling of almost… euphoria.

The chills. The chills you get from… music.

Goose bumps | Image courtesy of Wikipedia

Wikipedia (the second source of all knowledge behind Google in this century – ☺) defines the feeling as “cold chill”:

A cold chill (also known as chills, the chills or simply thrills) is described by David Huron as, “a pleasant tingling feeling, associated with the flexing of hair follicles resulting in goose bumps (technically called piloerection), accompanied by a cold sensation, and sometimes producing a shudder or shiver.” Dimpled skin is often visible due to cold chills especially on the back of the neck or upper spine. Unlike shivering, however, it is not caused by temperature, menopause, or anxiety but rather is an emotionally triggered response when one is deeply affected by things such as music, speech, or recollection. It is similar to autonomous sensory meridian response; both sensations consist of a pleasant tingling feeling that affects the skin on the back of the neck and spine.1

I tend to experience the chills quite often. I have come to depend on them as a musical barometer of sorts. In the studio when I hear that certain chord progression, melody or solo that I’ve never heard before and the hairs stand up on my arms and the goose bumps appear, I know something great is happening. You can’t fake it. You can’t have a discussion on its merits. You can’t rationalize it away or into existence. It’s a visceral reaction of your body to what just happened. It’s real. It’s involuntary. It’s completely uncontrollable.
I love it.

As unpredictable and spontaneous as the chills can be for me, they can also very predicable on certain music I’ve heard before. Some songs, in fact precise moments in some songs, always produce the chills for me:

  • When the vocal enters at 00:10 on Squeeze’s “Tempted”
  • The final distorted long held note at 09:30 of Chris Wood’s sax solo on Traffic’s “The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys”
  • 00:59, 09:05 and 11:53 in Jimi Hendrix’s “1983… (A Merman I Should Turn to Be)”

According to Science Daily, “scientists have found that the pleasurable experience of listening to music releases dopamine, a neurotransmitter in the brain important for more tangible pleasures associated with rewards such as food, drugs and sex. A study from The Montreal Neurological Institute and Hospital — The Neuro at McGill University also reveals that even the anticipation of pleasurable music induces dopamine release [as is the case with food, drug, and sex cues].2

Studies have shown that “most people feel chills and shivers in response to music that thrills them, but some people feel these chills often and others feel them hardly at all. People who are particularly open to new experiences are most likely to have chills in response to music, according to a study in the current Social Psychological and Personality Science.”3

I feel sorry for those that seldom or never get the chills from music. It’s perhaps a part of why some of us live and breathe music. Music strikes something deeply visceral, physical and emotional in us. Our bodies are physically reacting to the music.

Check out some of these playlists claimed by me and others to give them the chills. See if they work for you or find your own “chills” songs. You’ll know it when they come along; there’s no faking it.

My Three Chill Moments

50 Songs to Give You Goosebumps

80 Songs That Give You The Chills

Top 5 Songs That Give You Chills

Songs That Give You The Chills

1. Cold chill. In Wikipedia. Retrieved January 27, 2015, from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cold_chill
2. McGill University. “Musical chills: Why they give us thrills.” ScienceDaily. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/01/110112111117.htm (accessed January 27, 2015).
3. SAGE Publications. “Feeling chills in response to music.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 8 December 2010. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/12/101207191525.htm (accessed January 27, 2015).