We suggest first-time users skim the Intro and How To sections.

I. Intro to frisson

Below is an overview of music-induced chills, or what researchers refer to as “frisson”.

The best in the business already use frisson

The Qbrio team asked dozens of elite, Grammy-winning producers, songwriters, A&R executives, recording artists, and mix engineers if they know how to give listeners goosebumps and use this sensation in their creative process. They all said yes.

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

I go into the booth and I scream and sing and yell...And I just see when I get this little chill, here on my arm, and then I'm like yeah that's the hook.

Ester Dean

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

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

Clive Davis

Frisson = Goosebumps 

Researchers use the French word for shivering, frisson, to describe the pleasurable sensation of “getting the chills” during music. In controlled settings with listeners attached to fMRI machines, academics can identify the precise moments in songs when frisson occurs.


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

Goosebumps are part of our defensive fear response

There is a consensus among researchers that goosebumps evolved to help our ancestors deter predators. Early humans had much more body hair than we do, enabling them to appear larger and less of an easy target when they put their body hair on end.

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

Certain musical contrasts can trigger a “safe” fear response

Frisson comes from contrast. But if a musical contrast is too random or extreme, it will disrupt the flow of a song and annoy listeners. For frisson to occur, an artist needs to both trigger a listener’s fear response and help the listener quickly see that its a “false alarm”.


Unexpected contrast in a song

Fast, negative Reaction Response as listener’s brain defends itself until it can make sense of the change

Artist effectively integrates the contrast and maintains the musical flow

Slower, positive Appraisal Response as listener’s brain realizes its “just music” and there is no real danger 

Possible frisson response

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.

Dr. David Huron, leading frisson expert

Nine types of musical contrast can produce the effect

The Qbrio AI discovered nine consistent patterns across our dataset of listener frisson moments. Each pattern is a set of related musical devices (structural patterns) or auditory cues (acoustic patterns) that tap into a common biological mechanism. 

II. How to Create Frisson Moments

Below is a guide meant to complement and inform use of the Workspace feature.

Recipes don’t replace artistry

Crafting a moment that gives listeners chills is like gourmet cooking; even though the core flavors are well known (salt, sweet, heat, bitter, sour, fat, umami), it takes more than just knowing these flavors and having a great recipe to execute a great dish. Exceptional chefs apply their work ethic, creativity, and persistence to tinker with ingredients and find new ways to delight customers. 

Below we will outline several findings about the nine frisson patterns that can sound like “hacks” or secret formulas to manipulate listeners into a physical response. This is not how frisson works. The data-driven trends we share below are like recipes in cooking; you can have all the ingredients and amounts laid out for you, but at the end of the day’s its the chef’s talent that determines the outcome. Frisson in music works the same way. Artistry and continuous innovation is required.

Frisson comes from certain pattern combinations 

The Qbrio AI surfaced nine patterns that kept appearing organically across listener frisson moments. Each pattern is a set of related musical devices (structural patterns) or auditory cues (acoustic patterns) that tap into a common biological mechanism. Every moment in the dataset features at least two patterns: exactly one structural, and at least one acoustic.

Only One Structural Pattern

Surprise
Suspense
Paradox

One or More Acoustic Patterns

Aggression
Alarm
Epic
Grief
Harmonicity
Proximity

Possible Frisson Moment

Unlikely to work:      Surprise     Surprise + Suspense      Paradox + Surprise + Epic         Epic

Likely to work:     Surprise + Aggression    Suspense + Epic + Grief    Paradox + Harmonicity 

Getting to know the nine patterns

Every frisson moment features one structural pattern and one or more acoustic patterns. The three structural patterns involve sequences of uncertainty and expectation that create contrast.

Surprise at 1:01

Fulfill a listener expectation in an expected way

Suspense from 5:56

Cultivate listener anticipation by introducing uncertainty 

Paradox at 0:48

Create a contradiction by defamiliarizing a part of the music

Surprise is when two people are sitting in a coffee shop and a bomb goes off under the table; suspense is when we see a man place a bomb under the table and watch the two people meet to have coffee.

Alfred Hitchcock

The six acoustic patterns involve certain types of frequency content that reliably trigger a fear response. Artist combine these acoustic patterns with one of the structural patterns to create a frisson-inducing contrast.

Surprise + Aggression at 5:52

Mimic the acoustics of a threatening sound source

Surprise + Alarm at 3:02

Mimic the acoustics of a sound source in physical distress 

Surprise + Epic at 4:56

Mimic the acoustics of a large sound source 

Surprise + Grief at 3:39

Mimic the acoustics of a sound source in emotional distress

Surprise + Harmonicity at 3:11

Mimic the acoustics of two sound sources in perfect unison

Surprise + Proximity 0:15

Mimic the acoustics of a close or approaching sound source

Certain patterns work better together than others

Artists have intuitively discovered certain combinations of patterns that work well together. Certain combos are preferred in every genre and certain combos are genre-specific. The Qbrio AI uses these trends to tailor its Workspace recommendations for your music.

Top Pattern Combos:   All Genres

Suspense – Alarm
Surprise – Epic
Suspense – Epic – Harmonicity
Suspense – Grief
Suspense – Grief – Proximity

Top Pattern Combos: Pop

Suspense – Alarm
Suspense – Grief
Surprise – Epic
Surprise – Epic – Harmonicity
Surprise – Grief

Top Pattern Combos: Hip-Hop

Surprise – Epic
Suspense – Aggression
Surprise – Grief – Epic
Surprise – Epic – Harmonicity
Suspense – Alarm

Top Pattern Combos: Country

Suspense – Grief
Surprise – Harmonicity
Surprise – Grief – Harmonicity
Suspense – Alarm
Surprise – Epic – Harmonicity

Certain patterns work better in certain parts of songs.

Artists tend to use patterns in different amounts depending on song position. The Qbrio AI uses these trends to tailor its Workspace recommendations for your music.

Pattern usage in first quartile of song (0-25%)

Pattern usage in second quartile (25-50%)

Pattern usage in third quartile (50-75%)

Pattern usage in fourth quartile (75-100%)

Outside factors always affect frisson

Frisson is delicate; if for whatever reason a listener is in a bad mood or distracted when they listen to a song, they will not experience chills no matter how great the composition or the performance. Factors inside and outside a song have to align for frisson to occur. 

III. Deep Dive

Below is more in-depth information about the biology and psychology of frisson.

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.

IV. Academic Reserach

Below is a non-comprehensive list of links to key studies on 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