Understanding the neurocognitive mechanisms of vocal communication in health and disease

Why do we get chills when listening to music?


Why do we get chills when listening to music?


Have you ever experienced a pleasant chill running up your spine when listening to a piece of music or a given harmony? Or goose bumps raising up your arms?

Musical frisson…

This phenomenon is defined as music frisson. Listening to emotionally moving music can trigger a strong emotional reaction (e.g., joy, nostalgia) and influence our mood, aiding in emotion and mood regulation. A musical frisson occurs when music resonates so deeply that, as a result, a physical body response is elicited (i.e., chill down your spine).

Nucleus accumbens and music…

Goosebumps/chills are evoked when we are cold and scared, but also when we listen to music. Adrenaline (i.e., a stress hormone) is responsible for this physical reaction as it promotes body hairs to stand for a fight or flight response to an unexpected event. As our brain loves predictability, anything surprising stimulates an alarm, such as unexpected moments in a song like the introduction of a new voice (soloist), an unexpected key change or harmony. The moment it is processed that no danger is near, dopamine (i.e., a reward hormone) floods our ventral striatum (nucleus accumbens), resulting in the experience of pleasurable feelings and such contrast consequently causes a physical reaction. The nucleus accumbens is a brain area sensitive to reward (e.g., money, food, sex), motivating behaviours that promote a pleasurable outcome. Regarding musical frissons, studies suggest that this phenomenon results from the feelings of pleasure and reward generated by music, which activate the nucleus accumbens. Notably, this brain area is also activated in the absence of music frissons when we listen to music which we consider pleasurable.

In short…

In sum, the scientific term for that shiver that trespasses your skin when hearing that song, band or vocalist, is musical frissons. Musical frissons result from violation of expectations, as our brain makes constant predictions of how the music piece is going to progress and is surprised producing an emotional release. We feel goose bumps because while we love predictable things, the unexpected is even more thrilling to the human mind.

“It is the listener who gives life to the emotions in music.” – Oliver Grewe

Written by Mónica Costa


Koelsch, S. (2014). Brain correlates of music-evoked emotions. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 15, 170. Retrieved from http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/nrn3666
Salimpoor, V. N., Benovoy, M., Larcher, K., Dagher, A., & Zatorre, R. J. (2011). Anatomically distinct dopamine release during anticipation and experience of peak emotion to music. Nature Neuroscience, 14, 257. Retrieved from http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/nn.2726


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