tl;dr

Musical chills

depends on
Listening conditions, genre preferences, listener background

Is the listener wearing headphones?

Is the listener tired or distracted?

Does the listener enjoy the genre?

Does the listener already know and have a memory associated with the song?

Negative fear response

in “fast brain”
triggered by

Artist using one the six sets of

biological cues that make listeners feel fear

AGGRESSION
ALARM
EPIC
GRIEF
HARMONICITY
PROXIMITY

Positive realization its just

music in “slow brain”

triggered by

Artist using one of three structural

patterns of listener musical expectations

PARADOX
SURPRISE
SUSPENSE
Frisson = goosebumps

Researchers use the French word for shivering, frisson, to describe getting goosebumps and chills while listening to music. Arm-hair cameras, fMRI machines, and other tools enable scientists to pinpoint what happens in our bodies and our brains when we experience frisson. This has been an active research area for 30 years.

Anatomically distinct dopamine release during anticipation and experience of peak emotion in music. Nature 2011

“Hit songwriting and producing is all about chasing chills. You know, creating those moments that make the hair on your arms stand up.”

Quincy Jones

“If I make a track it has to give me goosebumps. If it doesn’t him me in the stomach, I can’t expect the audiences to have that feeling.”

Junkie XL

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

Ester Dean

“Hits are about the money notes…moments that send a shiver up your spine and make you say damn, this is gonna be a hit record.”

Clive Davis

The best in business use frisson

Elite creators and executives have exceptional intuition for frisson. It’s part of the “secret sauce” that makes them elite. Every Grammy- or Oscar-winning artist we’ve asked says a) they know how to give listeners frisson, and b) they consistently use the sensation in their creative process.

Frisson comes from fear

There is a consensus among researchers that music gives us chills by triggering our fight-or-flight response. This response is conservative. It treats all sudden changes in our environment (especially sounds) as potentially dangerous. Musicians take advantage of this “better-safe-then-sorry” sensitivity to move listeners.

The way cats put their hair on end when startled supports the thesis that goosebumps are an evolutionary adaptation.

Unexpected contrast

An artist does something radical and unanticipated during a song that provokes us

Reaction Response: 

Our brain “defends” itself by with a fast, negative reaction that makes us feel fear until it can make sense of the contrast

Appraisal Response: 

If the artist integrates the contrast back into the flow effectively, our brain realizes it’s “just music” and there is no danger

Frisson

Our brain rewards us with dopamine and pleasurable relief for “avoiding” danger (that never existed!)

“False alarms” lead to frisson

Ohio State professor David Huron developed the leading theory of frisson. He highlights the interaction between our negative reaction to a musical contrast and our positive assessment once we realize it was purposeful. Random fear sounds in a song won’t give us chills (they will just annoy us). Artistry is required.

Nine frisson “ingredients”

Artists use six sets of related biological cues to make listeners feel momentary fear (provoke a negative Reaction Response). Artists use three structural patterns of listener expectations to integrate fear responses into the flow of a song (elicit a positive Appraisal Response).

Structural + Acoustic = Frisson

Frisson emerges from combinations of structural and acoustic patterns.  A moment that triggers listener chills brings together 1 structural pattern and 1 or more (typically 2-4) acoustic patterns.

Certain combos are more popular

Artists use certain subsets of the nine frisson patterns more frequently than others. Some combinations are preferred in every genre and some are genre-specific. Creators have intuitively figured out which patterns work well together and which clash.

Song location affects pattern usage

Our age, gender, personality type, experience playing music, and types of music we grew up with all affect how well each of the the nine frisson patterns “work” for us. Certain patterns work reliably across demographics. Others are more niche. This creates significant opportunities for personalization.

Recipes don’t replace artistry

Crafting a moment that gives listeners chills is like gourmet cooking; just knowing the core flavors (salt, sweet, umami, etc.) or having a proven recipe does not guarantee success. Great chefs, like great musicians, tinker with ingredients and combine flavors in new ways to delight customers. The same is true for frisson; there is no one “hack” to manipulate listeners into the response. Artistry and continuous innovation is required.

We each have a unique frisson profile

Our age, gender, personality type, experience playing music, and types of music we grew up with all affect how well each of the the nine frisson patterns “work” for us. Certain patterns work reliably across demographics. Others are more niche. This creates significant opportunities for personalization.

Non-musical factors matter

Listening conditions, genre preferences, and listener idiosyncrasies affect whether a certain frisson pattern in a song “works” for a certain listener (e.g., a listener may have heard a song during their first date in high school and now gets chills from the memory associated with the song rather than the music itself).

Music

Musical moment that combines an acoustic and a structural frisson pattern

Effective set-up and follow-up by the artist

High-quality recording or compelling live performance

Listener

You experience frisson (66% population)
You like, or at least don’t hate, the genre
You are open to being moved; not tired, stressed, or distracted

Conditions

Headphones or high-quality speakers
Volume turned up
Listening alone or in anonymized setting

Possible Frisson Moment

There is ongoing research into frisson

Neuroscientists and psychologists have studied musical frisson for 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 from music.

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