We all have those special songs we go back to every now and then if we want to get a good dosage of “chills”—that powerful emotional response reflected by a pleasurable sensation of tingles, and even goosebumps. But what exactly is it that makes our bodies respond that way to a piece of music?
Why do we get chills when listening to music?
It turns out, some scientists asked themselves the same question and found a handful of possible answers. One of them is that as we listen to music, our minds are trying to figure out what’s coming next, and we get the chills when our predictions don’t match the actual course of the song.
Another possibility is that people who get chills have stronger connectivity between the auditory and reward systems in the brain, reports Quartz. Yet another possible answer is that people who are more emphatic, tend to experience more chills because of emotional contagion, or the process where our emotional state is shaped by the emotions of others.
More recent research supports yet another common finding: Sad songs are more likely to trigger chills—or “frisson”, as they’re commonly referred to by scientists. The research study was led by Rémi de Fleurian, a Ph.D. candidate in the music cognition lab at the Queen Mary University of London. What’s particularly interesting about de Fleurian’s newest work is how he conducted it.
“A lot of previous work was either completely theoretical or based on studies which were run on a small group of participants,” he explains, but his study shows that “you can do similar work, and achieve similar results with work that is entirely computational.”
“Sophisticated” music tends to trigger more goosebumps
Together with his co-author Marcus Pearce, De Fleurian went through published studies and compiled a list of more than 700 songs that have been identified as being chills-triggering. They then used data from Spotify to match each song with another piece by the same artist that had roughly the same length and popularity. Next, the two researchers went about comparing the two pieces of music, inspecting different features, including each song’s mood.
They eventually found that songs that induced chills were, on average, “sadder, slower, less intense, and more instrumental than matched tracks.” In the study, these songs carried the hallmark of “sophisticated music.”
A playlist with songs that will give you chills
A fortunate byproduct of the study was a large list of songs that de Fleurian and Pearce created as part of their supplemental material, which Quartz then converted into an epic playlist with chill-inducing music. From Pink Floyd to Amy Winehouse to Hans Zimmer, give the playlist a listen to find out what other artists have figured out the frisson equation.
Source study: i-Perception — The Relationship Between Valence and Chills in Music: A Corpus Analysis