Most of us find it hard to name our favourite tune. My favourite food? – easy, blue cheese! Favourite drink? – lemonade. Favourite colour? – green.But to select a favourite music would be impossible for me. Having said that, there are a few pieces that are so powerful that they make the hair on the back of my neck stand on end. They give me goosebumps. The brain and body secrets behind this strong emotional reaction tell us a lot about our deep musical souls.
Do I get musical goosebumps?
Have you ever been listening to a great piece of music and you get a prickly sensation? Maybe your stomach drops a little? Maybe a tingling shiver? All these physical reactions to music describe ‘musical chills’, also called a frisson, thrill and even ‘skin orgasms’!
For me, a guaranteed chills track is Luciano Pavarotti singing Panis Angelicus with his father Fernando, recorded in their family church in Modena in 1978. The point that the pair reach the high note of the final phrase together. I feel it from my neck to my toes.
Who gets chills and why?
Sloboda (1991) reported that 90% of people have had a musical chill and 62% have experienced chills at some point in the last 5 years. The number of people who get them regularly however is much lower, some studies suggest 25%.
A major study of chills and personality type found that ‘Openness to Experience’ is a significant predictor of who experiences chills. Chills are strongly positively related to a person’s level of engagement with music whereas by comparison, patterns of genre preference are immaterial.
It doesn’t matter what you like to listen to as long as music is a big part of your life and you are an open minded person. Once you have someone like this in the brain scanner and they are listening to their favourite track, what do you see?
What is going on when I get chills?
Musical chills have a physical reality, it is not just in your mind. At the moment of this intense emotional response to music, the point of a chill, your pupils will enlarge significantly. The brain response driving this alertness signal goes even larger and deeper.
The physical manifestations of a chill are driven by a deep psychological experience of pleasure. We find activation of the brainstem, in the ancient autonomic nervous system. The consequence of this activity are increased heart rate and respiratory depth, all part of the ‘fight or flight’ response.
The landmark study of music chills by Blood and Zatorre in 2001 revealed that they were associated with increased blood flow in areas of the brain associated with craving, similar to the responses to food, sex and drugs, hence some pretty inevitable headlines.
Later studies by Valorie Salimpoor showed neurotransmitters such as dopamine being released deep within ancient survival centres of the brain. Dopamine level can increase by around 9% in response to favourite music, which is higher than when we eat a favourite food (around 6% rise).
Known as the reward circuit, the release of neurotransmitters along this brain pathway is associated with highly motivating behaviour. In fact, the dopamine spike happens in advance of the peak in the music, so it is your anticipation of the best part of the track that drives a chill.
Musical chills also trigger the LC-NE system, the interaction of brain areas and focused attention. This is the system that loves it when your senses align and everything flows so you can focus – think of it like a brain reboot, a clean slate for new mental action.
Your brain never tires of sensuous chills, which helps explain why our love of music can be life-long. Evidence from the animal kingdom suggests that reward responses rarely satiate. A rat who is given a lever to push that stimulates similar brain circuitry will press that lever at the expense of almost anything else, never seeming to tire of the experience.
What about the music triggers chills?
Those who have studied musical chills (myself included) will tell you that it is an idiosyncratic phenomenon. Investigators ask people to bring in their own tracks to elicit chills, because no one piece reliably triggers the response in everyone. Hence, the biggest factor involved in chills is undoubtedly personal experience and listening history.
Despite this fact, musicologists have narrowed down a few musical structures that are associated with the chills phenomenon. They include:
1. Changes in volume – tick, for my Pavarotti piece
2. Entry of a voice – tick again
3. New or unprepared harmonies
4. Sudden textural changes
5. Solo instrument emerging from a softer orchestral background
Why do chills matter?
Chills happen when we listen to great music thanks to our ancient brain responses to stunning and enveloping sensory experiences. The key to this experience is rooted in the esthetical communicative power of music. Music speaks to us on a visceral level, moves us deeply. No wonder humans have been driven to create and replicate music for millennia. The presence of music, with its potential for intense pleasure, can elevate and beautify any physical setting in our world.