Why do we get chills from music?
Ever had a chill running down your neck when listening to a song? Feels weird? Don't worry, it might mean that you are special :)
Waking up to a rainy morning, you decide to turn on the music whilst making coffee. You hit the play button and it plays one of your favourite songs that you haven't been listening to in a long time. Halfway through the song, you feel a sudden chill down your neck, a goosebump, or perhaps a tingling sensation?
Dopamine: The source of happiness
Dopamine acts as a neurotransmitter or a hormone - a chemical released from nerve cells to send signals to other nerve cells. Dopamine is responsible for our happiness and not only controls our mental and emotional responses but also our motor reactions. It plays an important role in our cognitive, behavioural and emotional functioning.
What does this have to do with dopamine?
We humans seek for pleasurable experiences in our everyday life, such as singing, dancing and most importantly doing what we love. Without being aware of it, we desire for the exact same chemical reaction in our brain that makes us feel the emotions again - experiences that trigger the brain to release dopamine and makes us happy. When we listen to a song that we love, the brain releases more dopamine. It is also a normal reaction for us to press the "play button" again and experience the same sensation. Exactly like how a drug addict would always do, seeking pleasure over again and again.
Nevertheless, listening to the same song on repeat may lead to a desensitisation effect - a result of 'overexposure' where the brain no longer produces the same level of dopamine as before, and you will start to get sick from hearing the same exact song. This explains why listening to the same song is only pleasurable for a while and more than any of that will lead to an opposite effect instead. Therefore, 'rediscovering' a song can be a satisfying experience because the 'lack of exposure' allows us to regain the sensitivity to the song.
When we hear the song again, the music is able to trigger the long-term memory in a part of the brain - the hippocampus, which plays a role in the memory system. But that's for another story. Hearing a familiar passage can release similar levels of dopamine as the first time you heard it. Hence, listening to a favourite song that you haven't been exposed to for a long time will still make you feel good.
Unpredictable yet satisfying
Funny thing is, music is full of surprises, it teases our brain by keeping the dopamine triggers guessing. You never know when to expect a chill or even be prepared. You just listen to your expectations as the music progresses. When the music reaches the long awaited 'climax' or also known as the chorus in songs, your body gets physiologically excited. Your heart rate and body temperature increases, your pupil dilates. You become more alert as your cerebellum - mission control becomes more active, the dopamine is still building up and the greater the build up, the greater the chill. Before you even know it, your brain flushes with dopamine and the chill hits you right in the neck. Fascinating how the brain works with music, right?
What makes it special?
It turns out that getting chills from music isn't as common as you think. Well, if you have the chills, it means that you are one of the 50% people that experience this, as shown in a [study]. And this gets better, it also means that you might have a very different brain structure than those who do not experience those feelings. Studies had shown that people that have chills have a much higher volume of fibres in the brain that connects the auditory cortex to the areas that process emotion. Having more fibres also means that those two areas in the brain can communicate more effectively, and allows them to experience extreme emotions.
Yes, it even has a name - Frisson! The psychophysiological response to rewarding auditory stimuli that induces a phenomenon of chills otherwise known as goosebumps that come from a piece of music or any other aesthetic experience. Ever since it was first founded, it was still difficult for people to understand and was considered as a mystery to all. The chills were proposed to be a universal emotional experience. Not long after, a [report] found that the individuals who experience frisson are more open to experience than others. This also shows that your personality matters too, as open individuals are highly likely to play some kind of instruments.
Which genre of music?
Any genre would do! It can range from Mozart to Lady Gaga and even to Post Malone. It's never the style of the song, always the structure. Our brain works in a funny way where it gets excited when something unexpected happens. A chord progression, a new instrument enters, the volume increases, the whole melody shifts... and that's where we get the chills. It's all about being surprised.
Well, perhaps not all surprises count. You also might get it when you know what's coming next. Listening to a song that you had encountered with chills, you know what to expect with your past experiences. When your expectations are being met, the striatum becomes readily active and this goes back to the brain's favourite dopamine-inducing guessing game. This results in a sense of familiarity and enhances your excitement of getting the chill.
Here, I present you with one of my favourite pieces that gives me the 'chill' sensation. Try listening and see if you feel the emotions the same as I do :)
On a final note
Next time when you hear a beautiful song and it makes you feel emotional with an experience of chills and goosebumps, remember that there is a whole lot of chemical reactions going on in our brain which releases neurotransmitters that make you feel good.
As normal human beings, we seek for pleasure and repeat behaviours. When we come across a good song, there is a great possibility that we will press the 'play button' again. It doesn't matter... sit back, enjoy it, and let yourself feel it. Most importantly, feel the emotions and the musical chills.