Chances are you know the feeling, as research tells us anywhere from 55-86% of the population experiences “frisson” (free-sawn), or the full-body chill induced by an emotional sound or image. A movie trailer, a power ballad, or even a particularly moving photograph can trigger this response. The reason why is still being investigated, but research has given us a few answers.
1. It stimulates a hard-wired reward pathway in your brain.
Music stimulates a pathway in the brain which encourages dopamine to flood a structure called the striatum which is associated with addiction, reward, and motivation. So, music can affect our brains the same way as gambling or delicious food.
2. It’s all about the anticipation.
When you’re listening to music (or doing anything, really), you’re constantly looking for patterns and trying to predict what’s coming next. If your brain is predicting a resolution or a big moment, when it finally happens the satisfaction triggers the dopamine release. The longer you’re kept waiting, the bigger the chills.
3. It can be triggered by sad music, or something unexpected.
Research has shown that listening to sad music can actually create positive feelings (which is probably why you listen to so much sad music after a break up). Likely part of the reason we are drawn to sad music is because it can so easily induce frisson, which most people find to be a pleasant experience. Frisson can also be triggered by a sudden change: the music getting louder, softer, a new instrument entering, or anything else that catches us by surprise.
Want to test it out yourself? The following pieces have been identified as highly likely to trigger frisson: