Nine Frisson Patterns

We’ve spent three years studying chills-inducing passages and distilling the drivers of this phenomenon into nine unique patterns:


Fulfill a listener expectation in an unexpected way


Cultivate listener anticipation by introducing uncertainty


Create a contradiction by defamiliarizing a familiar musical element


Mimic the acoustics of a threatening sound source


Mimic the acoustics of a sound source in physical distress


Mimic the acoustics of a large sound source


Mimic the acoustics of a sound source in emotional distress


Mimic the acoustics of two sound sources in unison


Mimic the acoustics of a close or approaching sound source


Listener chills correlated with:

  • Loud sounds

  • “Volume”/depth

  • Low pitch

  • Infrasound

  • Scream-like sounds

  • Acoustic proximity

  • Surprise

Benedeka and Kaernbach 2010

Listener chills correlated with

  • Sad music

  • Crescendos

  • Violating listener expectations, especially through unexpected harmonies

  • Entry of a solo voice, choir, or additional instrument

  • Requires active listener attention

  • Familiar pieces more effective than unfamiliar pieces

  • Found support for Panksepp’s separation call hypothesis for how music gives us chills as opposed to peak arousal theories


Listener chills correlated with:

  • Large changes (especially increases) in loudness in frequency range of 920-4400 Hz

  • Increase in roughness, defined as multiple sounds played together with small differences in frequency

  • Decrease in tone-to-noise ratio (TNR), a measure of the density of musical events in a given time period

  • Situations with high roughness/low TNR occur when many instruments play at the same time, when many notes are played in short time spans, or when the instruments playing are not tuned (“The resulting sensation appears, however, to be perceived by the listener as pleasant or, at the very least, as chill-producing.”)

  • Calls for more sophisticated and standardized way to parameterize melody, harmony, and tempo and their relationship to the development of loudness


Listener chills correlated with:

  • Individual variables such as familiarity with the particular piece or musical style, personal musical preferences, and listening conditions; authors believe the listener’s relationship to music is more determinative for chills than any structural elements

  • Attention-grabbing/expectation-defying structural factors (entrance of a solo voice, increase in or change in volume, or other violations of expectations/beginning of something new) and psycho-acoustical features (loudness, roughness, sharpness, fluctuation); again authors believe these are of lesser importance than listener preferences and listening conditions


Listener chills (only focused on classical music) correlated with:

  • Slow tempo (adagio or larghetto)

  • Alternation/contrast between soloist and orchestra

  • Sudden or gradual increase in volume from piano to forte

  • Expansion in frequency range in the high or low register (e.g. octave jumps up or down, etc.)

  • Harmonic and melodic progression that deviates from what is expected based on previous section and creates moment of harmonic ambiguity and melodic-harmonic tension (e.g. chromaticism, deceptive cadence, tonicization prior to return to tonic, sudden unison of previously overlapping lines, modulation, chord inversions, tonal ambiguity through alternating tonic and mediant, etc.)

  • Interplay of melodic and harmonic progression

  • Familiarity not determinative for frisson; listeners become familiar with works that give frisson, not that frisson arises due to familiarity


Listener chills correlated with:

  • Sad/melancholy/wistful/bittersweet/nostalgic music

  • Dramatic/intense crescendos

  • Conditioning effects can trump intrinsic effects (e.g., listener familiarity/lack thereof with song matters more than if it is happy or sad)

  • Women listeners more than men

  • Piercing solo emerging from a richer orchestral background


Listener chills correlated with:

  • New or unprepared harmony

  • Sudden dynamic or textural change

  • Melodic appoggiaturas

  • Enharmonic change

  • Melodic or harmonic sequence

  • Prominent event earlier than expected

  • Harmonic or melodic acceleration to cadence

  • Delay of final cadence

  • Repeated syncopation

  • Harmony descending cycle of fifths to tonic