A new study conducted at Harvard and Wesleyan University explains the phenomenon behind music ‘chills’, the physical and emotional reaction, a chill down the spine or hairs standing up during an especially impactful moment of a musical experience.
The sensation is called ‘frissons’, which are also known as ‘skin orgasms’.
The new study, published in ‘Social Cognitive and Affect Neuroscience’ studied two groups of 10 individuals: ones that claimed to regularly experience frissons and ones that did not. Under the analysis of Diffusion Tensor Imaging, Harvard and Wesleyan’s team found that individuals who experienced said effects have more nerve fibers connecting their auditory cortex to the parts of the brain that control physical sensation and emotions.
Furthermore, subjects who are more intellectually engaged with music, like those who try to predict melodic progression or experience mental imagery, are more likely to feel the strong physically emotional response.
It was also interesting to note that the brain does not widely decipher the difference between musical ‘chills’ and the response to sex and drugs.
Psyche Loui, both a professional violinist and pianist, in addition to a psychologist at Wesleyan University, abstracted the science behind the aforementioned “skin orgasms” with student, Luke Harrison.
Individuals are typically able to identify acute points in a song that trigger musical “frisson”. Rapid harmonic changes, transferences from loud to soft, and incongruous accents that oppose the natural harmony of a track, all appear to prompt the onslaught of musical “frisson”. The final moments before, and after, the release of a pulsing baseline may generate such a sensation.
“MUSICAL FRISSON ELICIT A PHYSIOLOGICAL CHANGE THAT’S LOCKED TO A PARTICULAR POINT IN THE MUSIC,” CLAIMS LOUI.
What triggers our ability to experience goosebumps and “frissons” is a unique and outstanding element present in a particular song. Somewhere in the mix of mainstream and the unfamiliar, we find a piece of music that forcefully touches us (pun intended). The first time we listen to such a song, we are violated by the anticipation, the sensation cues the release of dopamine to both the caudate and the nucleus accumbens before and after the frisson occurs.
“YOU SEE A SIMILAR RESPONSE WHEN PEOPLE TAKE DRUGS OR HAVE SEX, WHICH MAY EXPLAIN WHY WE FIND SHIVER-INDUCING SONGS SO ADDICTIVE”, EXPLAINS LOUI.
Once we connect with a piece of music, the sensations we experience are heightened. We familiarize ourselves with the harmony and in turn, become conditioned to experience the sensation again, and again, and again.