By Henry Madin, BA (Hons)

Does music give you chills?

If so, you’re not alone. Many experience a shudder, a chill, and even goosebumps when listening to an engrossing piece of music. Although some mystery still surrounds these musical chills, studies suggest that the sensation is highly linked to our emotions and personality.

So what is this phenomenon?

This chilling sensation is called musical frisson, and it is a pleasure derived not from a change in temperature, but from a change in music. Neatly named after the French word for “shiver” and “thrill”, frisson can be elicited in a number of ways. A touch, smell, sight and even a memory can induce a wave of pleasure. However, nothing produces frisson as readily as music.

While no one piece of music is guaranteed to generate shivers down your spine, there are very common themes in songs that trigger frisson. An unexpected entrance of a new voice, a large dynamic change and the introduction of unresolved harmonies. These are the types of musical moments that defy our expectations, structurally and aesthetically, and spark a series of events that lead to an ephemeral shiver.

The experience is so desirable to some that online discussion boards dedicated to frisson thrive. One group on Reddit has 172,000 members alone (and counting).

How does it work?

Several theories attempt to explain frisson. One suggests that the sensation is triggered by a powerful experience of awe. Another, that the chills are a response to sounds that remind us of separation distress calls, like that of a baby or small animal crying for affection.

A leading theory, outlined by musicologist Dr. David Huron, suggests that these musical shakes are actually related to fear.

Huron’s theory proposes that abrupt changes in music can trigger an emotional surprise in the listener, creating a fleeting moment of anxiety and panic. This response may seem over the top, but it’s actually our biological reaction to an unpredictable event. Our ability to predict patterns is an important evolutionary function. When our predictions suddenly stop lining up with what we observe, our inner alarm bells begin to ring.

Essentially, he argues, these moments in the music trigger a fight or flight response. And as our defences go up, so do our goosebumps.

Goosebumps can occur for two very good reasons, both of them evolutionary hangovers from when our primate ancestors had much more body hair. The bumps are caused by the contraction of our skin to make our hair stand on end. This helps us to appear larger and more intimidating to potential threats and create a layer of insulation to keep us warm.

In the case of frisson, Dr. Huron hypothesises that our goosebumps form as a result of a perceived threat. Because we associate this same physical reaction with feeling cold, we perceive a cool chill.

But when listening to music, we are not in fact under threat. Within a second of putting up our defences, a slower and more thoughtful process in our brain lets us know that there is nothing to be worried about. It’s just music!

We quickly go from a state of mild shock to a feeling of relief. By contrast this is a very positive feeling. Researchers have observed the pleasure and euphoria centers of our brain become thoroughly active at this stage of frisson, experiencing high levels of blood flow and the release of dopamine.

Frisson is also highly linked with anticipation. Music has the ability to guide our emotions through trajectory and tension. When we especially like a piece of music and the way it guides us, we are more likely to feel a rush.

What makes a person likely to experience frisson?

The jury is still out on what percentage of people experience frisson. Studies suggest anywhere from 50-80% can achieve the sensation.

What we do know is that self-identified music lovers are more likely to experience chills than others. But you do not need to be a musician. No musical proficiency is required to feel these pleasurable shakes, nor is an ability to critically understand musical structure.

Frisson is more common in women and in people with creative and open-minded personalities. If you tend to day-dream and enjoying listening to music in the foreground, chances are high you’ll feel it too.

People with active imaginations and intellectual curiosity will also be more likely to achieve the sensation through art and poetry.

Now after all that, want to give frisson a try?

Here are some pieces that have either been used in research, or just gave this author a strong shiver.

  1. A Star is Born – Trailer

Listen for the entrance of Lady Gaga’s distinct voice in this well-crafted trailer. Like a foreign hand touching your arm, hearing an unfamiliar voice can trigger goosebumps.

2. Hans Zimmer – Oogway Ascends

This melody performed on a Chinese Erhu, likely triggers a frisson response not just because it is beautiful, but because it is in a frequency range similar to a scream.

Whitney Houston – I Will Always Love You

Houston’s vocal leaps along with deft key changes may set off your frisson response no matter how many times you have heard the piece before.