II. Deep Dive
Frisson – music-induced goosebumps and chills – is a key listener response that determines the commercial success of a song. That is why its long been the secret sauce of elite artists and A&R talent:
Frisson moments in music emerge from a two-part process. First, something radical or unexpected happens in a song that triggers our fight-or-flight response. Second, our brain quickly assesses this response, determines it’s a false alarm, and rewards us with dopamine for “avoiding” danger that never actually existed.
Frisson comes from contrast.
Cognitive scientist David Huron discovered that it is the contrast between a negative reaction response (fight-or-flight) and positive appraisal response that can result in frisson during music listening.
This doesn’t mean that any random loud stab will work. If an unexpected contrast is too disruptive and does not serve a musical purpose, it will not lead to a positive appraisal response. Instead, we will simply experience the surprising sound as unpleasant rather than getting pleasurable chills.
Possible frisson moment
Decrease listener arousal with a quiet, simple, or repetitive (i.e. boring) passage
Prime listeners to anticipate that something specific will happen in the music
Jolt listener and radically increase arousal via Six Acoustic Frisson Patterns
Violate an expectation, or fulfill it in an unusual way, via Three Structural Frisson Patterns
Hold, pause after, or repeat the new sound to encourage a positive appraisal response
Integrate the surprise into the melodic flow to encourage a positive appraisal response
Some chills-inducing moments in music result from factors other than sound (e.g. the meaning of the lyrics, an accompanying music video, a memory you associate with a song, awe at performer skill, etc.). But even for a purely musical moment, your listening context strongly affects the likelihood of whether you will be moved to chills.
Headphones or high-quality audio system (e.g. 5.1 surround sound)
Volume turned up
Minimal background noise or distractions
Alone or in anonymized setting (e.g. part of crowd at live concert)
Honest listening; not trying to anticipate moments
You can get chills from music (~66% of population)
You like, or at least don’t hate, the genre of the song
You are in a good enough mood that you are open to being moved by music; not tired, stressed, angry
Moment featuring one or multiple of the Nine Frisson Patterns with effective set-up and follow-up
Possible Frisson Moment
There will never be a simple formula for frisson. Creating moments that give listeners chills is like gourmet cooking: even though there are a set of core flavors all humans crave (salt, sweet, acid, bitter, umami, etc.), great chefs in every culture keep finding new ways to combine and bring out these flavors to create original dishes. Think of the nine frisson patterns like these core flavors. As listeners become accustomed to certain uses and combinations, like a chef you will need to tinker and invent new ways to pull off the patterns. Your creativity and talent will always be necessary to create moments that connect with audiences at a deep level.
DEEP DIVE: HOW FRISSON WORKS
Humans have a highly sensitive fear response.
We have evolved to treat all sudden, significant changes in our environment as potentially dangerous. Even for something as simple as an unseen door slamming, your heart rate increases, you hold your breath, and several other reactions occur to prepare you for a potential life-or-death situation.
These involuntary reactions are called our fight-or-flight response. This better-safe-than-sorry relic of our evolutionary past is a powerful resource for music creators.
Goosebumps and chills are a result of our fear response.
When our fear response is triggered, our bodies release a stress hormone called adrenaline that prepares our muscles for activity. One result is that of adrenaline release is that our skin muscles contract, making our body hair stand on end (i.e. goosebumps). A second result is that major muscle groups tighten and relax repeatedly (i.e. chills).
Its theorized that goosebumps are part of our fear response because they helped our evolutionary ancestors (who had much more body hair than we do) appear larger and therefore less of an easy target to predators. One piece of evidence for this theory is the way that cats react when they are startled.
Music can sometimes trigger a “safe” fear response
When music triggers a fear response, our brain quickly determines there is no actual threat. It’s just music. We then experience relief. This relief feels good because our brain releases the pleasurable neurotransmitter dopamine. Musicians take advantage of this evolutionary “bug” that causes our brain to reward us for avoiding threats that don’t exist.
This pleasurable relief, combined with the physical side effects of goosebumps and chills, is what we call frisson. It’s not a coincidence that listeners often use the terms “eargasm” or “ecstasy” to describe how they feel during musical frisson; sex, drugs, and frisson all activate the same, addictive, dopamine-fueled reward system.
Frisson required a surprising musical contrast
Cognitive scientist David Huron’s leading theory of frisson starts with a finding from psychology. Humans experience more pleasure from good outcomes when those outcomes are unexpected. In fact, we experience the most pleasure from a good outcome when we expected a bad outcome, much more so than if we had simply correctly anticipated the good outcome. Huron asserts that this effect is what can make a musical surprise – when we think the music is goin gone way, but then it goes in a totally different direction – feel so incredible.
But not any sudden musical change will result in frisson. A musical surprise needs to contribute to the piece; if a contrast is too random or disruptive, it removes us from our frame as a music listener. We then feel confusion or even annoyance, not pleasure. It is only when a surprising contrast complements and enhances the music that our brain feels “safe” and rewards us with chills.
There are nine ways to create frisson moments in music.
The qBrio team has identified nine patterns, six acoustic and three structural, that reliably appear in passages that listeners say are chills-inducing.
The common element across these nine patterns is that they evoke fear at a sub-cortical level. Academic researchers including Jaak Panksepp, Oliver Grewe, Robert Zatorre, Valerie Salimpoor, and David Huron have previously discovered or hypothesized these patterns during experiments in laboratory settings. Explore the nine patters here.
Musical context is crucial for frisson patterns to work.
For a change in music to be surprising, you need to prime listeners to expect something else to happen. Sequencing, repetition, and musical form are key tools you can use to set up and pull off frisson patterns. The research also indicates that the most powerful chills occur when listeners are tipped off and know it, but not precisely when or how, a great moment is going to occur. This likely explains why frisson can, up to a point, increase with repeated listenings; we know where the great moments are but our brains are still figuring out the precise tricks the artist used to create them.
Listening conditions, taste, and personality traits matter.
First, if a listener doesn’t use headphones, has the volume too low, is distracted, or simply hears a passage too many times in a row, frisson is less likely to occur. Second, if a listener hasn’t grown up with or hates a certain genre, music from that genre is less likely to work for him or her (e.g., if you think opera sounds like screaming, its not going to give you chills). Third, some people physically can;’t get chills from music. The research indicates that musicians, women, and people who rate low on “thrill seeking” and high on “openness to new experiences” are more likely to experience musical frisson.
There will never be a simple formula for frisson.
Creating moments that give listeners chills is like gourmet cooking: even though there are a set of core flavors all humans crave (salt, sweet, acid, bitter, umami, etc.), great chefs in every culture keep finding new ways to combine and bring out these flavors to create original dishes. Think of the nine frisson patterns like these core flavors. As listeners become accustomed to certain uses and combinations, like a chef you will need to tinker and invent new ways to pull off the patterns. Your creativity and talent will always be necessary to create moments that connect with audiences at a deep level.
ACADEMIC RESEARCH ON MUSICAL FRISSON
While it may appear to be a subjective, fleeting phenomenon, neuroscientists and psychologists have studied musical frisson for over 30 years. Researchers use fMRI machines, arm hair cameras, skin conductance sensors, and other technology to identify precisely what happens to our body and brain when we experience goosebumps while listening music.
Leading researchers on frisson include David Huron, Elizabeth Margulis, Robert Zatorre, Valorie Salimpoor, John Sloboda, Patrick Juslin, and Matthew Sachs. If you want to learn more about frisson be sure to consult their work.
Huron’s 2014 lecture summarizing the state-of-the-science on frisson research
Zatorre and Salimpoor’s seminal 2011 Nature article that established the neurobiology of the frisson effect, importantly that two anatomically distinct neural pathways are involved: one linked to the anticipation of frisson moments, and a second linked the experience of a frisson moment itself. This Wired article gives a good account of the research in less technical terms.
Zatorre and Blood’s foundational 2001 research that established the link between music-induced frisson and activation of the same pleasure/reward brain circuitry associated with the consumption of food, drugs, and sex
Panksepp’s 1995 work that found sad music produces frisson more than happy music and women are more likely to experience frisson than men; also Panksepp’s 1995 thesis that music-invoked chills work through an evolutionary neurobiological mechanism associated with sadness over the loss of social bonds (in particular mother-infant separation distress), rather than peaks of happiness
Sloboda’s foundational 1991 article that identified 10 musical devices correlated with the frisson effect
Sachs et. al’s 2016 study that found people who get the chills from music have a higher volume of fibers connecting their auditory cortex to other brain areas associated with emotional processing, which means they have an enhanced ability to experience intense emotions; this study provides support for the “communicative empathy” theory of frisson as an enabler of social-emotional bonding
Juslin’s 2013 BRECVEMA framework of eight mechanisms through which music elicits emotions; our hypothesis is that a subset of these (e.g. brain stem reflect, musical expectancy) are behind the more universal musical moments that produce the frisson effect, while others (e.g. evaluative contagion, episodic memory) are behind niche moments
Pelowski et. al.’s 2018 article – What do chills actually portend?
Bannister and Eerola 2017 study on the effects of chills sections in music, in which the authors altered aspects of the chills sections and measured how this affected listener biofeedback
Mori and Inegawa’s 2017 study that identifies physiological correlates to distinguish between two peak experiences from music: chills vs. tears
Panksepp’s 2016 study that correlates pupil dilation with frisson
Culver and El-Alayli’s 2015 work and Robert McCrae’s 2007 study that found not all people can experience musical frisson; those most likely to experience musical frisson (estimates range from 50% to 80%) have personality traits associated with “openness to experience” and have unusually active imaginations, appreciate beauty and nature, seek out new experiences, often reflect deeply on their feelings, and love variety in life
Koelsch et al.’s 2015 study on the effect of chills on cardiac signatures of emotionality
Schoeller and Perlovsky 2015 study on narratives and aesthetic chills
Harrison and Loui’s helpful 2014 survey and assessment of recent research into the musical devices and neurobiological mechanisms that produce the frisson effect
Huron and Margulis’s 2011 chapter on the role of time, repetition, and expectations in producing frisson
Alf Gabrielsson 2010 book synthesizing 30 years of interviews describing peak experiences with music
Grewe et al. 2010 study on the chills effect in different sensory domains
Nusbaum and Silvia 2010 study on personality and the experience of chills from music
Nagel et al. 2008 study that found several acoustic and structural frisson correlates
Grewe et al.’s 2008 study that found several musical devices correlated with frisson and also found correlations between the ability to experience music-induced frisson and personality traits including being emotionally sensitive (“thin-skinned”), more reward dependent (i.e. crave approval and positive emotional input), and aversion to thrill-seeking (people that experience frisson, including us, are terrified of roller-coasters and other adventurous activities, which may be why we like musical frisson as its a safe way to feel some thrills )
Grewe et al.’s 2007 study that found entrance of solo voice or choir was correlated with chills
Guhn et. al’s 2007 study of the musical-structural devices correlated with the frisson effect
Huron’s 2006 book that provides a comprehensive treatment of the mechanisms through which music elicits emotional responses, including the frisson effect
Grewe et. al 2006 article on how music arouses chills
Craig 2005 article on physiological changes during music-induced chills