It’s well known that music can provoke intense emotional reactions. In some people, it induces certain physiological changes as well.
Music-evoked frisson, or musical chills, is the pleasurable shivering feeling one gets when listening to a particular piece of music. How a person experiences frisson varies: Some people report feeling a shiver go down their spine, while some exhibit piloerections or goosebumps. Others report flushing, trembling, and sweating. Frisson lasts from a second to 10 seconds or more and is an involuntary sensation. Common stimuli include loud passages and violated expectations, such as soft music that abruptly becomes loud or unexpected deviations from the main melody of a song.
A handful of studies have been performed on music-evoked frisson, and it is widely accepted as a marker of peak emotional response while listening to music. Researchers at the Montreal Institute and Hospital at McGill University followed 10 subjects through the “frisson moment” using MRI imaging. Researchers then examined the MRI images from the moments they experienced frisson. They found that listening to music releases dopamine, a neurotransmitter that help’s control the reward and pleasure centers of the brain. Dopamine is usually associated with more tangible pleasurable experiences such as eating delicious food. The results of the study suggested that music, an abstract reward, can lead to the release of dopamine. The researchers theorized that, if emotional response to music can lead to the release of dopamine, it could help explain why people value music so much, and why music is used to influence emotions in commercials, TV shows, movies, and the like.
It could also explain why listening to music, apart from giving people a tingly feeling, often results in bursts of nostalgia. Studies on smoking found that dopamine release induced by chronic nicotine use stimulates smokers’ memories.
Earlier studies have found that women are more likely than men to experience frisson and that people who regularly enjoyed listening to music and consider it a part of daily life are more likely to experience the musical chills.
Frisson is not necessary to appreciate music. Emotional and physiological reactions to music are far from universal and are as varied as the types of people listening to it.