Wiring the Brain: The Science Behind Music “Chills”

Scientists have recently conducted research on the phenomenon called “frisson,” a feeling that results after exposure to particularly rewarding auditory or visual stimuli.

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Many people have experienced an inexplicable moment while listening to music, especially after hearing a particularly good chord or note, in which chills run throughout their body. At the moment, most people do not know the reason behind this feeling, but it’s been estimated that around 50 percent of people experience shivers, a lump in their throat, or goosebumps when they listen to certain types of music. This phenomenon, termed “frisson,” is also known as “aesthetic chills” or “musical chills,” a psychophysiological response to auditory and/or visual stimuli that often induces a pleasurable state. This subsequently results in skin tingling, chills, goosebumps, and pupil dilation.

Neuroscientist Thibault Chabin and colleagues at the Université de Bourgogne Franche-Comté in Besançon, France have now used the electroencephalogram (EEG) to link chills to multiple brain regions involved in activating reward and pleasure systems. An EEG is a test used to evaluate the electrical activity in the brain as neurons communicate with each other through electrical impulses. They found that specific electrical activity in the orbitofrontal cortex (emotional processing), the supplementary motor area (movement control), and the right temporal lobe (auditory processing and musical appreciation) work together to process music, trigger the brain's reward systems, and release dopamine. This produces frisson, the physiological response thought to indicate greater brain connectivity or the interrelatedness of the parts of the brain.

The peak of musical emotional experiences that elicit frisson has to do with two particular areas of the dopaminergic system of the brain: the caudate and the nucleus accumbens. Each of the brain’s hemispheres contains a caudate nucleus, both located in the center and near the basal ganglia (near the thalamus, close to the midbrain). The caudate controls voluntary skeletal movement as well as reward and emotional interactions, among other functions. The nucleus accumbens plays a large role in the reward system as well, focusing on dopamine and serotonin transmission. The caudate nuclei anticipate the moments before the emotional peak of frisson, and the nucleus accumbens activates during the release immediately after the peak. The connectivity between auditory and emotional reward processing systems suggests frisson is a network of reward regions rather than a single modular region. Listening to frisson-inducing music corresponds with a change of cerebral blood flow to certain areas of the brain, which reflects a “craving” reflex similar to our responses to food, sex, and drugs of abuse. It can be concluded that there is an affinity for frisson-inducing music due to the development of dopaminergic anticipation for its return, or a slight addiction to the musical stimulus.

Other researchers have discussed that the act of experiencing frisson could have been embedded into the subconscious memory in childhood development years from ages one to six. It is primarily the modality of music (major, minor compositions) that may have been retained from auditory stimuli from a young age that influences the release of chemicals into the central nervous system, thus inducing frisson. These findings, recently published in the Psychology of Music journal, also indicate that people who intellectually immerse themselves in music (rather than just letting it flow over them) might experience frisson more often and more intensely than others. However, it’s just as possible for an individual who simply listens to music occasionally to experience frisson. Either way, frisson is not easily inducible, and listening to a chord that had previously resulted in frisson will not always do so again.

The research conducted regarding frisson and its impact on the brain could change the way music therapy works in the future. Music therapy is used for a variety of conditions for both adults and children, treating illnesses such as depression, anxiety, trauma, autism, Alzheimer’s disease, and dementia. Patients listen to, reflect on, and create music to improve their health and well-being in therapy; immersing oneself in music can allow one to more easily express emotions, identify and process difficult experiences, or simply find emotional release. While music therapy is not a cure for these conditions in any way, it may soothe symptoms or even deter the progression of memory loss. Researchers are attempting to discover ways to induce frisson in patients currently undergoing music therapy in order to promote subjective well-being or happiness, which can be considered synonymous with mental health progression.

The tingling sensation that characterizes frisson has also been compared and contrasted to autonomous sensory meridian response (ASMR), which is a brain response to certain visuals and sounds that allow for relaxation and sleepiness. Though ASMR and frisson result in similar physiological mechanisms, they are caused by different kinds of triggers, making them qualitatively different. An fMRI study demonstrated that the mentioned brain regions activated by frisson were also associated with brain activity stemming from ASMR exposure. Their similar patterns of activation and resulting feelings can most certainly be used in music therapy. More knowledge regarding frisson and its beneficial effects can be applied to better the mental health of patients, something that ASMR and music therapy proponents are looking to further investigate. It is a slowly but surely growing field of interest, one that is capturing the attention of many researchers looking to improve the lives of individuals who could potentially benefit from inducible frisson.