I. Introduction

Frisson is the most powerful listener response to music.

Frisson is caused by the best moments in music. It involves a physical response of goosebumps and chills, an emotional sensation of euphoria and thrills, and other physiological reactions (dopamine release, faster breathing, dilated pupils, etc.). Frisson moments are rare, fleeting, and difficult to create. But they are worth it. 

Frisson is the secret sauce of elite artists and A&R execs. 

Top songwriters, producers, and A&R reps use their exceptional intuition for frisson to create hits. In our experience, if you ask famous musicians whether they know how to give listeners chills, they say yes without hesitating. Frisson is critical to hits because dopamine is addictive; it’s what prompts audiences to return to a song over and over seeking that pleasurable release. 

“I go into the booth and I scream and I sing and I yell…And I see when I get this little chill, here on my arm, and then I’m like, ‘Yeah, that’s the hook.’"

Ester Dean

Songwriter for Beyoncé, Rihanna, Katy Perry

“Hits are all about the money notes. You know, those notes that send a shiver down your spine and make you say damn, this is gonna be a hit record.”

Clive Davis

Famed founder of Arista Records

 

“If I make a track it has to give me goosebumps… if it doesn’t hit me in the stomach as being great, I cannot expect the audience to have that feeling.”

Junkie XL

Film composer, Mad Max: Fury Road

Frisson comes from contrast.

Researchers led by Ohio State professor David Huron have discovered that frisson involves momentary fear. In chills-inducing passages, something radical or unexpected triggers our instinctual fight-or-flight response. Then, the cognitive part of our brain quickly assesses this response, determines it’s a false alarm, and rewards us for “avoiding” danger that never existed. The perception of control is vital; the same sounds that make us pleasurable fear in music can make us feel gripping fear if we hear them in a dark alley.

Prof. David Huron, leading theorist of frisson

Dopamine release during frisson moment. Zatorre and Salimpoor, Nature 2011

There are nine types of contrast for creating frisson.

The qBrio team has identified nine musical patterns that reliably appear in frisson-inducing passages. Depending on genre and personal taste, artists use different subset and combinations of these patterns to create moments that trigger our fight-or-flight response. Visit the Library and Pattern Pages to get a feel for what these patterns sound like in action.

Acoustic Patterns

Structural Patterns

Context is crucial for a certain moment to “work”.

The nine patterns are not magic bullets that automatically give listeners chills; the immediate set up and follow up is crucial. If the contrast between a target moment and the music preceding is not dramatic enough, it won’t trigger our fight-or-flight response. At the same time, if a radical contrast occurs but is not immediately integrated back into the musical flow, we’ll simply experience it as disruptive and unpleasant. The balance has to be just right for frisson to occur.

1:19-2:21 is a popular listener frisson moment. Note the contrast of the borrowed Gm chord and breaking voice from the preceding section and how the IV-iv-I progression immediately resolves.

4:05 is a popular listener frisson moment. Note how the radical sub-bass effect at 4:04 contrasts with the preceding dissonance but then immediately leads in to the consonant Elgar melody.

II. Crafting Frisson Moments

Crafting music that gives listeners chills is like gourmet cooking: even though there are a well-known set of core flavors all humans crave (salt, sweet, acid, bitter, umami, etc.), great chefs across cultures 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. 

 

You need to be constantly tinkering with and trying new combinations of the nine frisson patterns. Just like the flippant refrain “add salt and fat to any dish to make it good” won’t help you create a Michelin-worthy dish, neither will thinking that there is a simple formula or “hack” for frisson. Your creativity will always be necessary to create authentic moments that move listeners to chills.


Context is crucial, before and after a frisson moment.

The key to frisson is contrast, appropriately set up. Remember it is the contrast between our involuntary fight-or-flight response and our conscious appraisal of that response (“It’s just music, there is no danger”) that causes chills. Something wild has to happen musically to trigger a listener’s fight-or-flight response. But it can’t so wild that is disrupts the flow completely.

Set-up

Moment

Follow-up

Decrease listener arousal with a quiet, simple, or otherwise boring passage that creates a lull

or

Prime listeners to anticipate that something specific will happen in the music via form and repetition

Jolt listeners and radically increase arousal with one of the Acoustic Frisson Patterns

or

Violate the expectation, or fulfill it in an unusual way, with one of the Structural Frisson Patterns

Hold, repeat, or pause after the new sound to encourage a positive appraisal response

or

Integrate the surprise into the melodic flow to encourage a positive appraisal response

Not any random loud stab will give audiences chills. If an unexpected contrast is too disruptive and does not a serve a musical purpose listeners can detect, it will not lead to a positive appraisal response. Instead, we will simply experience the surprising sound as annoying or even unpleasant. Context is crucial.

 

Certain patterns work better in particular genres and sections of a song.

Our data indicates that artists use certain subsets and combinations of the nine frisson patterns much more frequently during certain sections of songs (e.g. intro vs. bridge, etc.). We’ve also observed that the patterns tend to be used in different proportions across genres. These trends indicate there may be a set of optimal methods to trigger the human fight-or-flight response with music.

Factors beyond music quality can affect frisson.

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, listening context and listener background can strongly affect the likelihood of whether a given individual will be moved to chills.

Listening Conditions

Volume turned up (ideally using headphones)

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

Quality audio that is not overly compressed  

Listener

You can get chills from music (~66% of population)

You like, or at least don’t hate, the genre or artist 

You are in a good enough mood that you are open to being moved by music; not tired, stressed, or angry

Music

Moment featuring one or multiple of the Nine Frisson Patterns with effective set-up and follow-up

 

Start using the qBrio Workspace to create frisson-inducing music.

 

III. Deep Dive: How Frisson Works

Humans have a highly sensitive fear response.

We have evolved a better-safe-than-sorry tendency to treat all sudden 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 what is referred to as our fight-or-flight response. This evolutionary relic is a powerful resource for music creators.

Nature's tendency to overreact provides a golden opportunity for musicians. Composers can fashion passages that manage to provoke remarkably strong emotions from relatively innocuous sounds.

David Huron, frisson expert

Goosebumps and chills are part of our fear response.

When our fight-or-flight response is triggered, our body releases adrenaline to prepare our muscles for activity. This stress hormone causes muscles in our limbs to contract, making our arm and leg hair stand on end (i.e. goosebumps). Another effect is that major muscle groups in the torso tighten and relax repeatedly, producing shivers along our back (i.e chills). It’s theorized that these reactions helped our evolutionary ancestors (who had more body hair than we do) appear larger and therefore less of an easy target to predators. 

Music can sometimes trigger a “safe” fear response

Radical and unexpected music passages can sometimes surprise us to the point of triggering our fight-or-flight response. When this occurs, our brain instantly scans the environment and 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; our body rewards us for avoiding a threat that never existed. When they give us chills, musicians and composers are taking advantage of this evolutionary “bug” in our reward circuitry.

Map of dopmaine release before vs. during a musical frisson moment. Zatorre and Salimpoor, Nature 2011.

A “safe” fear response results from contrasting expectations

Cognitive scientist David Huron’s leading theory of frisson starts with a foundational finding from psychology. Humans experience more pleasure from unexpected good outcomes than from expected good outcomes, even if the actual outcome is the same. In fact, we experience the most pleasure from a good outcome when we had expected a bad outcome. Huron asserts that this psychological effect – what he terms contrastive valence – is what can make a musical surprise so powerful and pleasurable.

There are nine methods for triggering a “safe” response

After reviewing thousands of chills-inducing passages, the qBrio team has identified nine acoustic and structural patterns that consistently appear during frisson moments. These patterns involve sequences and auditory cues that reliably create the contrasting expectations, or “contrastive valence”, that David Huron has identified as the key ingredient for frisson. Each pattern taps into an underlying biological mechanism to trigger a subcortical fear response. This is why certain frisson moments can work so well across millions of listeners, they leverage our shared neurobiology.

We each have a unique frisson profile

Our sensitivity to each of the nine frisson patterns is shaped by our genes and our environment. Certain patterns, for example the Alarm pattern, are likely to be effective across all listener demographics given the evolutionary benefits of this pattern. Other patterns, for example the Aggression pattern, show anecdotal evidence of varying significantly by age and gender (i.e. it appears to be especially effective with young males). Frisson profiles creates significant opportunities for music personalization.

Listening conditions also affect frisson

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 has an irrational hatred for, a certain genre or artist, that music is likely to work for him or her (i.e., if you think opera just sounds like screaming, it’s not going to give you chills). Third, some people physically can’t get chills from music. The research indicates that musicians and music lovers, women, and people who rate low on “thrill seeking” and high on “openness to new experiences” are more likely to experience musical frisson.

Visit our blog to read more about the latest research and findings on frisson.


IV. 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 al2008 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