New Research on Why We Get Chills When We Listen to Music

Everyone knows the feeling of being thrilled by music. You might get a chill. Goosebumps might pop up. There’s a little tingle that comes from the neck or the spine. But what is that? What’s the specific neurological/physiological response? Why do we respond to music with the same sensations we have when we get cold? What evolutionary purpose could this possibly have? Scientists have been stumped–until now.

Well, they’re still a little stumped–but they have a better idea of what might be going on.

Matthew Sachs, a graduate at USC conducted an experiment on 200 music fans at Harvard. First, they filled out a personality questionnaire. Ten were picked to form a “chill group” and another ten became the “no chill” group. Each submitted playlists of songs that they found most pleasurable. Coldplay’s “Strawberry Swing” was one of them.

Then came the tests, including a brain-scanning procedure called “diffusion tensor imaging” (DTI) which shows how different areas of the brain are connected along with the efficiency of neural communication within the brain. When the scans were examined, definite differences appeared between how three important areas of the brain were connected with respect to the “chill” and “no chill” groups.

Basically, those who felt chills with music had more nerve fibres running from the auditory cortex (the place where audio is processed) to the anterior insular cortex (where feelings are processed) and the media prefrontal cortex (where emotions are assigned to stimuli.) This makes sense. Audio has to pass through areas of the brain responsible for giving us some kind of thrill. Sachs had this to say in The Guardian.

“We think that the connectivity between the auditory cortex and these other regions is allowing music to have that profound emotional response in these people,” he added. “It’s very hard to know whether or not this is learned over time, or whether these people naturally had more fibres. All we can say is there are differences that might explain the behaviour we see.”

These findings are supported by Robert Zatorre, who works at the Montreal Neurological Institute at McGill. “Some people seem particularly sensitive to music, showing not only a lot of interest and liking of music, but also displaying physiological responses to music, such as the very pleasurable ‘chills’.”

(Via The Guardian)


Alan Cross

is an internationally known broadcaster, interviewer, writer, consultant, blogger and speaker. In his 30+ years in the music business, Alan has interviewed the biggest names in rock, from David Bowie and U2 to Pearl Jam and the Foo Fighters. He’s also known as a musicologist and documentarian through programs like The Ongoing History of New Music.

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