FEATURE: Chills, Thrills and Goosebumps: How Music Evokes Different Reactions



Chills, Thrills and Goosebumps:


ART CREDIT: Sam Chirnside

 How Music Evokes Different Reactions


I am fascinated the way music hits and how our mind and body…



interacts with sounds. I often wonder whether memories, and music that evokes such powerful ones, unlock a bigger rush and hit than new music – those songs you need time to attach to. The reason for going into this area is a recent study that showed, if you get goosebumps when listening to music – your brain might be wired a bit different. I will quote from Tone Deaf -   who explain things a little better:

It’s a feeling many of us know well: that shiver down the back of your spine as your favourite song hits its crescendo, the hair standing on end on your arms as your breath shortens. It seems a simple thing, but apparently this visceral reaction to music may tell us something about the way our brains work.

The reaction described above isn’t something that happens to everyone, but as Consequence of Sound reportsa new study published by the Oxford Academic finds that people who experience strong physical reactions to music may be wired differently to those who only react to music internally, and may be open to experiencing a wider range of emotions.

Conducted by USC PhD student and musician Matthew Sachs, the study finds that people who are impacted by music in this way “have a higher volume of fibers that connect their auditory cortex to the areas associated with emotional processing, which means the two areas communicate better.”


 The study was only quite small, working with two groups of 10 students, one of which reported feeling chills when listening to meaningful music, and the other which claimed it did not. By utilising brain scans of the two segments, researchers found that not only did the ‘shivers’ group experience more neural connections in the auditory cortex, responsible for processing our hearing, but they also experienced an increase in the emotional processing centers and the prefrontal cortex – the latter of which would be involved in thinking about the meaning behind the song, the former concerned with the emotional side.

For Sachs, the small study was only a first step in finding out more about if and how the phenomenon is linked to differences in emotional capacity, and “individual differences in sensory access”, with plans to continue the studies in the hopes of using the findings to treat depression.

This is not a new study but it does show how powerful music is: the way it impacts different brain-types and personalities is fascinating. This is not the only study – I shall introduce a couple more later – but, when it comes to lifting the mood and tackling depression, should we be harnessing music more emphatically? I was intrigued when reading the new study as few of us think about the neurological connection with music – how our neurons and the temporal dynamic build-up develops over time.


That intravenous flow of music, once in the bloodstream, works its way to the brain and, once there, squirts into all the crevices, avenues and side-streets of the mind.  When one gets shivers and goosebumps listening to music, obviously, it causes us to calm and relax. Any anxiety and stress, at that moment, dissipate and demure. That might return but it seems, to me, music has a potent part to play when tackling psychological and neurological illnesses. Maybe the illnesses are too complex to be adequately targeted but music can allay and calm some of the worst symptoms. Music is such a vast and deep subject: deciding which pieces elicit certain triggers can be discovered through extensive experimentation and trials. Many have been run but, in a nation where mental illness is taking off at an uncontrollable level, it seems now, more than ever, more time and money needs to be directed towards such a scheme. I will share my experiences and thoughts but, before I do, an article for your delectation - that was published last year:

We predicted that if a person were more cognitively immersed in a piece of music, then he or she might be more likely to experience frisson as a result of paying closer attention to the stimuli. And we suspected that whether or not someone would become cognitively immersed in a piece of music in the first place would be a result of his or her personality type.



To test this hypothesis, participants were brought into the lab and wired up to an instrument that measures galvanic skin response, a measure of how the electrical resistance of people’s skin changes when they become physiologically aroused. Participants were then invited to listen to several pieces of music as lab assistants monitored their responses to the music in real time.

Examples of pieces used in the study include:

·         The first two minutes and 11 seconds of J.S. Bach’s “St. John’s Passion: Part 1—Herr, unser Herrscher

·         The first two minutes and 18 seconds of “Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 1: II

·         The first 53 seconds of Air Supply’s “Making Love Out of Nothing at All

·         The first three minutes and 21 seconds of Vangelis’ “Mythodea: Movement 6

·         The first two minutes of Hans Zimmer’s “Oogway Ascends

Each of these pieces contains at least one thrilling moment known to cause frisson in listeners (several have been used in previous studies). For example, in the Bach piece, the tension built up by the orchestra during the first 80 seconds is finally released by the entrance of the choir—a particularly charged moment that’s likely to elicit frisson.

As participants listened to these pieces of music, lab assistants asked them to report their experiences of frisson by pressing a small button, which created a temporal log of each listening session.



By comparing this data to the physiological measures, and to a personality test the participants had completed, we were—for the first time—able to draw some unique conclusions about why frisson might be happening more often for some listeners than others.

Results from the personality test showed that the listeners who experienced frisson also scored high for a personality trait called “openness to experience.

It seems, in all these studies, Classical music is used as reliable samples. I can understand why these pieces evoke an instant and tangible reaction: sweeping strings and delicate piano motifs; scores that provoke all manner of deep emotions and violent scenes. Without a word being sung; a fantastic Classical articulation can mobilise shivers, goosebumps and tease in an orgasm of biblical proportions. The same, actually, can be said of Jazz. A terrifically sensual and primal blast of horns can get right into the heart and make the head spin. Is it, then, the instrumental passages that are responsible for those vivid reactions? I am surprised as many as a-third of people do not possess the ability to be that moved by music. I guess there is no D.N.A. coding imprinted from birth – we all react differently to music. Some suggest a deeper immersing into music – people who intellectually bond with artists – means one gets greater nourishment and connection. That makes sense: if you properly listen and conspire with music; you are going to be more immune to its full beauty and potency.


There have been few songs, in the past few years, that has moved me to such a heart-stopping and hair-raising reaction. A few Folk numbers make me smile, sigh and shiver; a couple of great vocal performances create goosebumps and near-tears exposure. It is hard to predict what song will cause me to lose my senses and surrender to its majesty. It does not have to be something as obvious as Classical music. I can listen to a new track on a BBC station and, whether a sublime vocal or great guitar riff, I will have that candid response. I can definitely reveal I am among those who are moved to the point of shivers and goosebumps. It is a wonderful thing to experience but I feel, adding my opinion to the debate, there is a childhood dynamic. The same way we can be taught morals and a certain talent: we can learn to respond to music in such a way we have physiological side-effects. I am sure my passionate exposure to music, when a child, is why I can produce goosebumps with ease. I am sure that inherited neurology and a predetermined propensity to these responses means, in some way, certain people are hardwired and encoded from birth. It is not the case those who are now immune cannot, with a little change of diet and commitment, reach the same ‘heights’ as people like me. Many will say what is the big deal about experiencing goosebumps?!


I know they are temporary and cannot transform a human in radical ways. What is the biology and science behind these ‘frissons’ and shivers? NME, in an article in 2013, shed some light:

The researchers (Valarie Salimpoor and her colleagues from McGill (Canada)
found activation in an ancient, centrally based brain system called the dopaminergic reward pathway; structures associated with pathway, such as the striatum and nucleus accumbens, were flushed with the brain-pleasing neurotransmitter ‘dopamine’ just before and during musical chills. This reward brain response is associated with motivation and addiction.

We typically experience this type of brain response to biologically rewarding stimuli; things that help us survive, like sex and high fat foods. Modern music does not really help us survive so it is effectively piggy-backing on this reward brain system. This system can also get hijacked by chemicals that modify mood. On the face of it therefore, this part of your brain reacts to sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll.

It seems we have a primordial and caveman like lust to experience the rush and sexiness of music. Those who get shivers from Classical music, one feels, are having a different part of the brain stimulating than, say, a great riff or epic Rock song. There is that clash of beauty and passion that appeals to separate parts – each as powerful and important as one another. To me, the songs that get me shivering and goosebump-y are those that connect me with early memories. The first artists and albums I was exposed to were instrumental and formative.


From a sweeping and gorgeous Kate Bush song to the opening notes of The Beatles’ I Feel Fine – these notes and sounds connect me to my first encounter with the artists responsible. Hearing a song so many years down the line can instantly connect us with that first encounter. A song can cause shivers because of the memories it produces – that same song might not create the same reaction if it did not have that same importance. It is interesting taking that point and seeing whether memories are a more powerful tool than quality. What I mean is, when people hear certain songs/genres; do they get that stunned reaction because it unlocks something in their memory? I wonder whether I get shivers hearing I Feel Fine because I heard it as a child. Were I to hear it fresh today; I am not sure I would get the same response and effect as I do. That means it is the actual remembrance and connection with the past that causes shivers – not something inherently embeded in the song itself.


The introduction to Tears for Fears’ Everybody Wants to Rule the World makes me shiver because it is my first memory of life. I do not think I’d have that intense response if it was a new track. I think there is a lot of potential to be mined from music’s power and unique gift – when shivers and goosebumps form and calm the senses. Whether that materialises in cognitive therapy and some form of anxiety remedy or not – I feel we should not read studies and leave it at that. The fact we are getting new findings each year – the latest one dates back merely a few days – means people are interesting discovering why music can cause someone to shiver and stop dead. It is clear music, in various forms, genres and configuration, has an incredible ability and magic…


SO many people are fascinated by.