Frissons and Chills When Listening to Music

Have you ever felt tingles, chills, or goosebumps while listening to a certain song? Maybe you’ve even noticed a boost of euphoria connected to those pleasant sensations in your skin.

If that’s the case, you’re not alone! Frissons (a French word for shivers) are a pretty common phenomenon. So common that various studies have been conducted to find out more about the experience in itself and the causes that trigger it.

How much do we know about frissons?

As with everything else regarding our complicated brains, the scientific community is far from having reached a definitive truth about frissons. Several studies have been conducted and we can now have access to a wide range of data, but the phenomenon is so subjective, so changeable from one individual to another, it can be complicated to extrapolate common trends.

However, scientists and psychologists managed to isolate certain recurring trends and causes by testing a big number of people with different personality traits and in diverse environments.

Let’s briefly see what they have concluded.

‘Now We Are Free’ by Hans Zimmer – A common frisson-inducing musical track (more songs and musical pieces later in this article):

What are musical chills?

First of all, let’s find a common definition of the phenomenon. Frissons are also known as musical or aesthetic chills. In fact, they may manifest not only while listening to music but also while looking at a work of art in general, such as a beautiful painting or a moving film scene. Emotional and intense music, nonetheless, is surely one of the most triggering facts to cause them.

Scientifically speaking, frissons are a psycho-physiological response to an auditory or visual stimulus, mediated by the reward system in our brains (which controls the psychological response) and the sympathetic nervous system (which controls the physical response). The responses are often identified as positive, with a nice psychological feeling and some pleasant skin tinglings or chills (known as transient paresthesia), piloerection (the good old goosebumps), and pupil dilation (also known with the scientific term mydriasis). When transient paresthesia is experienced, it is usually located in specific areas of the body, such as the back, the shoulders, the neck, and the arms.

The phenomenon of frissons varies from individual to individual, as each response is absolutely unique. Frissons could last for a small period of time or longer. They could present only one specific response or manifest as multiple responses. Mostly, the causes of the phenomenon vary sensibly according to each individual. The responses might also be strengthened by specific environmental conditions, such as cold temperatures.

Despite this variety in the data collected and a lack of common ground, frissons seem to be very common as studies suggest that between 55 and 86% of the population can experience the phenomenon.

What causes musical chills?

There are a few recognizable patterns in a certain piece of music that could actively cause frissons. For example, when the song doesn’t meet the listener’s expectations, or when the volume gets louder. A rhythmic, harmonic, or melodic variation we don’t anticipate may cause a frisson. A change in the frequency or the amplitude is another triggering factor. The reaching of a climax in a specific phrase can make us experience tingles and chills.

Generally speaking, whenever a work of art triggers a specific emotion, maybe one we can particularly relate to at that moment, we can feel an aesthetic chill, due to a sort of emphatic response.

Are we in love? A mellifluous love ballad is very likely to cause us goosebumps, maybe while reminding us of our darling one.

However, we don’t necessarily have to feel that specific emotion to have a psycho-physiological response we can identify as a frisson. The response can be automatically activated by the musical pattern we are listening to or by a set of concurrent environmental and psychological conditions.

Are certain people more inclined to frissons?

A study reveals that people with specific personality traits may be more inclined to experience aesthetic chills. People classified as “open to experience” through a personality test have registered more frissons than people with other personality traits.

People open to experience usually have a more vivid imagination and they are also more prone to introspection and intellectual curiosity. They may enjoy art, nature, and new experiences. Therefore, musicians, artists, writers, creatives, in general, could experience aesthetic chills more often and at a deeper level.

This category of individuals may be more inclined to frissons for a number of reasons. For example, they might be able to engage more in predictions about the direction of a musical piece (due to their use of imagination), finding themselves more sensitive to chills whenever these expectations are not met.

Some frisson-inducing pieces of music

The vast realm of classical compositions offers a wide range of examples of frisson-inducing music.

In the work of Johann Sebastian Bach, to name one, we can find different thrilling moments that may cause chills. Herr, unser Herrscher, a choral part from St. John’s Passion, presents a very valid example of this. In the introduction, the orchestra performs quite a tense part suddenly interrupted by the entrance of the choir. That break in the listener’s expectations may cause some vivid aesthetic chills. A similar pattern applies to Chopin’s Concerto No.1, Romanze, when the orchestra softly prepares the ground for the emotional entrance of the piano.

Nowadays, soundtrack composers know how to deliver specific emotions in a powerful way. That’s why many soundtrack songs can trigger frissons. Hans Zimmer’s Now We Are Free, for example, is likely to give you chills as the chorus starts, when the light arrangement and the almost whispered melody finally reach a climax.

When it comes to rock and pop music, Going to California, by Led Zeppelin, or their more famous Stairway to Heaven can both be quite frisson-inducing. In the first song, Going to California, there is a harmonic change in the second half that somehow bewilders the listener and generates a pleasant chilling vibe. In Stairway to Heaven, the several arrangement changes and rhythmical shifts produce the same effect.

Another frisson-triggering artist is surely Joni Mitchell. Her use of suspended chords and peculiar sounds generated by her odd guitar tunings are able to produce tingling sensations and deep emotional responses in the listener.

As previously highlighted, however, the frisson phenomenon is highly subjective, therefore different people may experience chills with different songs.

Composers and songwriters who want to induce this phenomenon should nevertheless keep in mind the huge role played by the variety and the breaking of a listener’s expectation.

Conclusion

In conclusion, while we have no definitive answer on the phenomenon of frissons and aesthetic chills, we can conclude it is very common, especially around people with a more active imagination and a tendency to experience new things and add variety to their lives.

We can also conclude that variety is a key factor when it comes to musical compositions that trigger the phenomenon.

By surprising the listener, composers can more easily provoke those pleasant chilling sensations we associate with intense emotions and good works of art.

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