The Science Behind Getting “Chills” From Music

Your favorite operatic concerto reaches its peak and you feel goosebumps, or the “chills”- maybe your hair even stands on end. But why?

There’s actually a scientific name for this phenomenon: “musically evoked frisson” – and some recent scholarship on the subject is making new rounds on the web, giving us a good chance to think and talk about other ways that sound can induce physiological and psychological reactions.

Maybe opera music is unlikely to have this effect for you, but I mentioned it at the outset because a recent study by musicologist David Huron specifically notes that opera is a good candidate to evoke frisson because “opera singers produce the bulk of their sound energy in the 3- to 4-kilohertz range. Humans are quite sensitive to this range, probably because it is also the range of a human scream.”

In the full version of the study (source) Huron establishes in greater detail the biological reasons for this reaction. Logically, it became a biological imperative that humans developed a particular sensitivity to screaming- in fact, we’re able to hear a human scream from further away than any other type of sound. The cry of a baby is in nearly the same kilohertz range, and (no surpises here) is exceptionally easy to detect as well, with similarly jarring effects on the mind. We’re wired to experience a powerful response to these tones. Makes sense- but why then is frisson such an enjoyable and sought after sensation, when it is essentially a reaction to a fearful or alarming event? Well:

The brain, Huron said, has two competing goals. One, the unconscious “fast path,” is to “react as fast as possible, especially to danger.” The other, the “slow, conscious path,” is to “react as accurately as possible.” When a listener experiences a frisson, Huron believes that he first reacts with fear toward the stimulus, then comes to enjoy it by consciously recognizing that the stimulus is actually harmless.

So “musically evoked frisson” is enjoyable for the same reason that some people are able to enjoy horror movies- on a neurological level, it “excites” the brain and the body when a fear response is triggered. And there’s an inherent pleasure in overcoming danger- one that is certainly much easier to feel if the danger was never real. The sound events that evoke frisson do tend to share similarities with the types of events that frighten us in horror movies- it all comes down to the unexpected. Sudden and drastic changes in volume, tempo, or pitch are cited by Huron as marks of the moment in a musical piece that is most likely to evoke frisson.

Statistically speaking, there’s actually a good chance that you’ve never even experienced this sensation. According to the article I cited above:

  • 47%  of participants in the study reported never having experienced a music-induced “chill.”
  • Female participants were more likely than males to experience frisson (this was the result in multiple studies, in fact)
  • Participants were much more likely to experience frisson when given the opportunity to select their own music. A clear correlation was shown between familiarity and musically evoked frisson.

Of course, “musically-evoked frisson” and the “frequency following response” of brainwave entrainment are two very different phenomena, but there are some interesting principals of neurology that carry over. Perhaps most obvious is the fact that no two people are alike, and this extends all the way down to cognitive reactions based on sound activity. What is to one person an absolutely stunning and goosebump-inducing piece of music may leave another listener entirely unmoved. And an entraining tone that can lead one person to an incredibly focused state of mind might have no noticeable effect on someone else. In either case- just because you never have, doesn’t mean you never will. I wonder how many people out of the 53% who claim they have never experienced frisson simply have not yet heard a piece of music that they can really connect with.

One Comment to “The Science Behind Getting “Chills” From Music”

  1. […] article explains how we get the chills (and they are multiplying =P) “There’s actually a scientific […]

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