Chills and Thrills: Your Brain on Music

Have you ever had the chills while listening to a powerful piece of music? Recently, I went to listen to the North Carolina Symphony play The Music of Star Wars event. As I was listening to the music, I was able to visualize scenes from the movies. My body instantly got chills and I felt many emotions swell with the music. According to researchers at USC’s Brain and Creativity Institute, if you get chills while listening to music, your brain may have an enhanced ability to experience intense emotions.


The experience of getting chills is called frisson (free-shawn), which is French for “aesthetic chills.” The most common occurrence of frisson is listening to emotionally moving music, but it can also occur when you watch a particular movie, look at a piece of art, or are in physical contact with another person. Music that includes sudden changes in volume or unexpected harmonies are common triggers for frisson because it goes against our expectations in a positive way. For example, if a violin soloist is playing an emotional piece that builds to a unexpected high note, the listener may feel this emotional build up and experience goosebumps.


Over the past five decades, there have been numerous studies on frisson and how our brains and bodies react to unexpected stimuli, particularly in music. A study conducted by Matthew Sachs, a USC Ph.D student, found that people who get chills while listening to music have structural differences in their brain. Sachs says that people who get chills while listening to music might have a higher volume of fibers connecting their auditory cortex to areas of the brain that process emotions. These fibers mean better communication between the two areas.


Another study conducted by Dr. Amani El-Alayli, a professor of social psychology at East Washington University sought to find if a person’s personality type played a role in if they were able to experience frisson while listening to music. The study had participants listen to 5 pieces of music, each with at least one thrilling portion to induce a frisson response. Participants also filled out a personality test, which researchers used to draw the conclusion that participants who experienced frisson also scored high in the personality trait “openness to experience.” People with this trait often reflect deeply on their emotions, seek out new experiences, and have active imaginations. As a result, researchers concluded that listeners were experiencing frisson due to a deeply emotional reaction to the music they were listening to.


With an estimated 55 to 86% of the population able to experience frisson, it is very likely that you have experienced it while listening to emotionally charged music or watching an emotional film. In these moments, your brain is working at an enhanced level so you are able to experience emotions more strongly. If you want to put the theory to the test, listen to our frisson-inducing playlist and see how you react!


Bohemian Rhapsody– Queen

Across the Stars– John Williams

I Will Always Love You– Whitney Houston

Human Nature– Michael Jackson

Fortuna– Carmina Burana


Have you ever experienced frisson while listening to music? Comment and let us know!


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