Why Does Music Give Us Chills?

This blog talks about many things: languages, translations, cultures, etc., but one thing we hardly ever explore here is music. One cannot deny that music is in fact, a beautiful language in and of itself. Just like words, music is both written down and then expressed through sound. If you think about it, music is one of the purest and oldest forms of language. The ability to make sounds, thus creating expressions and gestures with instruments and song is truly remarkable. Music has the ability to make us ponder, cry, smile, and release emotions. Its powerfulness is particularly notable in how it creates physical changes in our organism, specifically the chills. What is going on in our bodies and in our brains when a specific chord or tune makes our tiny arrector pili muscles contract, thus creating goose bumps and chills? Let’s take a look:

While there are many different theories as to why one experiences these feelings when listening to music, several important ideas regarding this phenomenon pervade.

For one, music stimulates the reward pathways, which are ancient parts of the brain where dopamine is released into the striatum. These areas, and the neurotransmitter dopamine, are all involved with feelings of love and lust and are related to sex, gambling, addiction, and other activities. Music is thought to increase these dopamine levels, thus giving us pleasure; in fact, these chills are similar to the rush one feels when engaged in sexual activities. When these levels peak, that is precisely the moment when your body experiences the chills. Most interesting is the fact that many times the brain is aware of when a song is about to change. As it predicts and prepares for this moment, it releases dopamine seconds before the big change. Perhaps you have noticed that you feel goose bumps right as the moving guitar solo hits, or perhaps when there is a sudden drop or spike in the tune.

Remember too that music elicits many different emotions within us. Both mild and intense emotions stimulate the hypothalamus and the amygdala, which are brain structures heavily involved with hormone production, bodily changes, and indeed, emotions. Emotions and intuition were quite helpful in our caveman days as these would warn us of a dangerous creature or a situation. These feelings create increased blood flow, sweating, changes in heart rate, and of course, goose bumps. So one can see how the two are directly related.

Have you noticed that a certain genre of music sends chills down your spine? Is your trigger love songs or powerful operas? I for one, am deeply moved by Michael Nyman’s “The Departure,” an instrumental song teaming with mysterious and melancholic tones.