Sometimes your playlist hits all the right chords, and your body goes on a physiological joyride. You feel your heart beating faster. Your pupils dilate from pure joy to take in more of your surroundings.
Even your body temperature rises. Inside the cerebellum, the brain’s leading center for body movement, neurons are firing rapidly. Your brain lights like a Christmas tree with a flush of dopamine, and you feel that unique chill running down your spine when you enjoy something.
You might wonder from time to time what is so special about music and why it gives you the chills. Let’s go on a fact-finding mission and investigate.
Why Does Music Give Me Chills
A Special Biological Reason for Music Chills
Matthew Sahcs, a Ph.D. student at the University of Southern California, was interested in understanding the phenomenon we describe as music giving us the ‘chills.’ In his research, he studied 20 students who had to listen to between three and five pieces of music.
Half of the participants admitted that they experienced shivers or chills while listening to the music, while the other half did not report any effects.
The research went further, and after brain scans of the participants, Matthew and his research team discovered unique features in the brains of those who did experience chiFlls.
For example, the participants who experienced shivers were found to have a higher volume of fibers that connect their brain’s auditory cortex to areas responsible for emotional processing. This means that these areas in the brain can communicate better.
In addition, those ten participants also had a higher prefrontal cortex — an area of the brain involved with understanding certain things, like interpreting a song’s meaning.
People with musical training are also more likely to experience these types of reactions to music. Matthew’s study also pointed out that people who get the chills while listening to music have an enhanced ability to experience intense emotions.
Musically trained persons are also more likely to report passionate, emotional responses. You can read more about Matthew’s research here.
Positive Violation of Our Expectations
The term for those unexpected chills followed by goosebumps is called frisson (pronounced like free-sawn). Frisson is a French word that can be translated as ‘aesthetic chills’ and feels like a wave of pleasure running down your back and over your skin. Some researchers even call it a ‘skin orgasm.’
But why does it happen when we listen to music? Scientists still do not have a conclusive answer to the phenomenon but have found that unexpected harmonies, a soloist’s entry to a piece, or even sudden changes in volume can all trigger frisson chills.
The Goosebumps Factor
Our chills and subsequent goosebumps may be an evolutionary trait left over from our pre-human ancestors. Experts still argue whether music has an actual biological function in our ancestors’ lives or whether it is a byproduct of human existence.
But, when we consider that music prompts the release of oxytocin, the ‘cuddle hormone,’ which promotes bonding in the human brain. From an evolutionary perspective, music would have helped our ancestors form cohesive and socially bonded groups — a key factor to surviving as a group and species.
Another factor we’ve inherited from our hairy predecessors is goosebumps. They kept themselves warm by trapping a layer of air between their skin and hair — we still experience this phenomenon today.
So, for example, when you suddenly encounter a chilly wind on a warm, sunny day, your body will respond with goosebumps to keep you warm. But now we have clothing and have lost most of our hair, so we don’t need the extra layer of warmth to keep us warm.
Another theory is that goosebumps are a remnant of our fight-or-flight response. When the body releases high amounts of adrenaline to either run away from the danger or fight it. Strong emotional reactions, like frisson, can also have this effect on the body.
Dopamine would be released when our ancestors successfully escaped or fought the threat. We are ‘rewarded’ with relief and feeling good about surviving.
Extending this theory to our appreciation of beautiful artworks, a passionate scene in a movie, or music, we also have this reaction. The jury is still out on why we respond this way to stirring music, but in the meantime, we are free to enjoy the music without overthinking it.
Maybe it happens because our brain likes to find patterns and predict future outcomes — a valuable skill our ancestors needed to survive. Musicians and people with musical training are taught to seek out patterns, chord progressions, and the like.
When something does not follow this pattern, it ‘violates’ our anticipation of what ‘should’ have followed, and a minute adrenaline-followed-by-dopamine storm happens in the brain. Additionally, our curiosity is rewarded by the flow of dopamine and chills.
Your Personality Might Play a Role
People with a personality trait called Openness to Experience (click here to read more about the personality trait) also score high on the scale for experiencing frisson.
The personality trait is present in persons with active imaginations, who appreciate nature and beauty, and who often seek new experiences. However, these people are usually not thrill seekers or adrenaline junkies (exceptions exist, and this is not a hard and fast rule).
Persons who like to immerse themselves in the music rather than just passively letting it wash over them are more likely to experience frisson.
The Openness to Experience personality trait allows people to make mental predictions about how the music will unfold — the process combines daydreaming with listening to music. By intellectually immersing themselves in the music, these persons experience frisson more commonly than others.
Many studies have been done about why we experience chills while listening to music, and as we inch closer to an answer, we still don’t know exactly why it happens. The type of music does not matter — whether it is Bach, Bartók, or even the Beach Boys.
Experiencing chills while listening to music is a unique phenomenon; between 55 and 88% of society experience it in one way or another. Don’t overthink it. Just enjoy the music and the feeling!