I. Refresher

Goosebumps = Frisson

Frisson is the term researchers use to describe moments in music that give us pleasurable goosebumps and chills. It can be caused by music, movies, and other stimuli. Beyond goosebumps, frisson results in a broader set of physiological reactions including faster breathing, pupil dilation, and increased skin conductance. Frisson is highly enjoyable because our brain releases dopamine – the neurotransmitter that reinforces behaviors necessary for survival like food, drugs, and sex. Dopamine makes frisson moments powerful, thrilling, and even addictive. 

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

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

Top artists and scouts use their exceptional intuition for frisson to develop hits. In our experience, if you ask a famous producer whether they know how to give listeners chills, they say yes without hesitating. Andy Hill, Grammy-winner head of music at Disney during the 90s renaissance, puts it bluntly: “every composer knows the highest compliment is to be told our music gave listeners goose pimples.” A&R executives understand that when a song gives us chills, we develop an emotional connection with an artist that drives loyalty and repeating listening. 

Hit songwriting and producing is all about chasing chills.

Quincy Jones

I have to be blown away live. Goosebumps = Signed.

Ron Burman

Frisson comes from contrast.

Researchers led by Ohio State professor David Huron have shown that chills-inducing passages surprise us; something radical or unexpected occurs that triggers our instinctual fight-or-flight response. We experience momentary fear. After this negative reaction, the cognitive part of our brain quickly assesses our response, determines its a false alarm, and “rewards” us with dopamine for avoiding danger (that never existed!). The sudden realization of control is key; the exact same sound that makes us feel pleasurable chills when we hear it in a song can make us feel paralyzing fear when we hear it in a dark alley at night.

Sudden musical contrast

Negative fight-or-flight response
Brain realizes its “just music”

Positive appraisal response

Nine types of contrast trigger frisson.

There are nine musical patterns that create enough contrast to move us to the point of frisson. Each pattern involves one of our biological defense mechanisms. These reflexes evolved for life-or-death situations; this is why music can produce such powerful reactions like frisson. As frisson expert David Huron puts it, these defense mechanisms are “…a golden opportunity for musicians. Composers can fashion passages that manage to provoke remarkably strong emotions from relatively innocuous sounds.” Musicians, it turns out, have discovered ways to mimic sounds from nature that make our brain overreact. This overreaction is what leads to frisson. 

II. How to create frisson moments

Artistry is required when using the nine patterns.

Crafting frisson moments is like gourmet cooking. There are a set of core flavors all humans crave (salt, sweet, acid, umami, etc.). And there are well-known ways to use these flavors to create addictive foods like a Big Mac or ice cream. Nevertheless, talented chefs keep finding new ways to combine and bring out these flavors to create original dishes. The nine patterns work the same way. They are used by artists in every genre of music. And while there are some tried-and-true ways to make a hook-y passage (e.g. use a I-IV-V-vi progression), the best artists keep innovating with these nine patterns to make original masterpieces.

A frisson moment requires at least two patterns.

After reviewing thousands of chills-inducing passages flagged by listeners, the qBrio team has identified some clear trends. Artists tend to combine two patterns to create a frisson moment. It is likely that this is effective because our brain gets overwhelmed by the simultaneous appearance of two (or more) sudden contrasts. This can often be enough to set off our fight-or-flight response. In particular, it appears that a combination of one the six acoustic patterns with one of the three structural patterns is the most reliable way to give us goosebumps.

At least one Acoustic Pattern

Aggression
Alarm
Epic
Grief
Harmonicity
Proximity

At least one Structural Pattern

Startle
Resolution
Familiar-Unfamiliar

Optimal pattern combinations vary by song position and genre.

After reviewing thousands of chills-inducing passages flagged by listeners, the qBrio team has identified some clear trends. Artists in different genres use the patterns in different ways. It is likely that this is effective because our brain gets overwhelmed by the simultaneous appearance of two (or more) sudden contrasts. This can often be enough to set off our fight-or-flight response. In particular, it appears that a combination of one the six acoustic patterns with one of the three structural patterns is the most reliable way to give us goosebumps.

 Top Combos: Pop

Proximity – Startle
Alarm – Startle – Resolution
Epic – Startle – Resolution
Alarm – Fam/Unfam
Epic – Grief – Harm. – Startle

Top Combos: Rock

Alarm – Startle
Aggression – Alarm – Startle
Harmonicity – Epic – Resolution
Epic – Aggression – Fam/Unfam
Harm – Fam/Unfam

Top Combos: Country

Grief – Startle – Resolution
Grief – Harmonicity – Startle
Harmonicity – Fam/Unfam
Epic – Alarm – Startle – Res.
Proximity – Startle

Pattern Use During First 25% of Songs

Pattern Use During Second 25% of Songs

Pattern Use During Third 25% of Songs

Pattern Use During Last 25% of Songs

Pattern combinations need to be properly set up and followed up.

The nine patterns aren’t magic bullets or “hacks” that automatically give listeners chills. The immediate set up and follow up is critical. In the set up, the key is striking a balance between two objectives. The first is to create a significant enough contrast that really jolts listeners and trigger our fight-or-flight response. The second is to avoid annoying listeners and completely disrupting the flow of a piece. This is why the follow up is also crucial. Directly after a frisson pattern that triggers our fight-or-flight response, artists need to encourage a positive appraisal response and integrate the surprise back into the musical flow.

Set Up

Decrease arousal with quiet, simple, repetitive or otherwise boring passage

Prime expectations with form, cadences, idioms, or other sequences

Moment

One or more Acoustic Patterns

One or more Structural Patterns

Follow Up

Hold, repeat, or pause after the moment

Bring back a familiar theme or otherwise integrate the surprise into the flow

Set-up: sustained, repeating dissonance fading out right before moment

Moment at 4:04: sub-bass effect resolves into consonant Elgar 

Follow-up: long held note to help listeners process the surprise

Keep in mind factors beyond music always affect frisson.

There are nine musical patterns that create enough contrast to give us frisson. Each of these patterns involves one of our biological defense mechanisms. These mechanisms evolved for life-or-death situations, which is why they can result in such powerful reactions like frisson. Musicians and composers, it turns out, have intuitively discovered ways to mimic threatening and surprising sounds from nature that trigger these defense mechanisms and make our brain overreact. As David Huron puts it, these patterns are “..a golden opportunity for musicians. Composers can fashion passages that manage to provoke remarkably strong emotions from relatively innocuous sounds.

Listening Conditions

Volume turned up (ideally using headphones)

No background noise or distractions

Alone or anonymous (e.g. crowd at live concert)

Honest listening; not trying to anticipate moments

Quality audio not overly compressed  

Listener

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

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

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