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Why music gives us ‘chills’

In his Frontal Cortex blog at Wired, science writer Jonah Lehrer writes about a fascinating new Canadian study that helps explain why music gives us “chills” — that combination of physiological factors (including an increased heart rate, dilated pupils and a slight rise in body temperature) that occur when music elicits a strong emotional response from us. (Blood is even redirected to the muscles in our legs when we listen to pleasurable music, which may be why, says Lehrer, we begin to tap our feet.)

The study, which was published earlier this month in the journal Nature Neuroscience, was “rather straightforward,” writes Lehrer:

After screening 217 individuals who responded to advertisements requesting people that experience ‘chills to instrumental music,’ the scientists narrowed down the subject pool to ten. (These were the lucky few who most reliably got chills.) The scientists then asked the subjects to bring in their playlist of favorite songs — virtually every genre was represented, from techno to tango — and played them the music while their brain activity was monitored [by both PET and fMRI imaging].

(You’ll find sample songs from the volunteers’ eclectic playlists here. The pieces include Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings, op. 11,” Led Zeppelin’s “Moby Dick” and Infected Mushroom’s “Vicious Delicious.”)

As Lehrer notes, the first thing the researchers discovered wasn’t, perhaps, all that surprising: Listening to music releases the neurotransmitter dopamine in regions of the brain (the dorsal and ventral striatum) associated with other pleasurable rewards, such as food, drugs and sex. They also found that the more emotional a person’s reaction to the music, the more dopamine the brain released.

But the study made another, more unexpected finding, one involving the timing of the dopamine’s release: In the subregion of the striatum known as the caudate (associated with the mediation of reward stimuli, among other functions) the dopamine activity was most pronounced 15 seconds before the music’s acoustic climax — in other words, before the “chills” arrived.

Why? Here’s Lehrer’s explanation:

While music can often seem (at least to the outsider) like a labyrinth of intricate patterns — it’s art at its most mathematical — it turns out that the most important part of every song or symphony is when the patterns break down, when the sound becomes unpredictable. If the music is too obvious, it is annoyingly boring, like an alarm clock. (Numerous studies, after all, have demonstrated that dopamine neurons quickly adapt to predictable rewards. If we know what’s going to happen next, then we don’t get excited.) This is why composers introduce the tonic note in the beginning of the song and then studiously avoid it until the end. The longer we are denied the pattern we expect, the greater the emotional release when the pattern returns, safe and sound. That is when we get the chills.

There’s a lot more to Lehrer’s essay, including a discussion of how the composer and musicologist Leonard Meyer used Beethoven’s “String Quartet No. 14 in C-sharp minor” to “show how music is defined by its flirtation with — but not submission to — our expectations of order.”

You can read Lehrer’s essay here.

So, next time you experience a shiver while listening to the Claude Debussy’s “Clair de Lune” or the film score from the movie “Amélie” or a techno version of the famous tango piece “La Cumparsita” (three more selections that made the playlists of the study’s volunteers), pause for a moment to consider what’s happening in those amazing and ancient circuits of your brain.

Or you could simply enjoy the music. And tap your feet.

Comments (2)

  1. Submitted by Lance Groth on 01/21/2011 - 12:26 pm.

    This is an endlessly fascinating topic. I’d be very interested to see the results of a study that measured the same kinds of responses to music in other species. Do other animals perceive and respond to music – and enjoy it – in the same way we do? Does a higher mammal such as dolphin or elephant perceive it differently than other species? How does it sound to a dog’s sensitive ears? Is it enjoyable or cacophonous? There is a video on youtube of a parrot, a cockatoo, dancing to music, keeping perfect time to the beat as he kicks his feet and bobs his head. I always leave music radio on for my birds when I’m away from home, and I’d give a lot to know how they perceive it.

  2. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 01/24/2011 - 08:47 am.

    No birds here – or pets of any kind, actually – but it’s still a fascinating topic. My daughter-in-law leaves the radio on – softly-played classical music – for her cats when the house will be empty of humans for any extended period. Yes, I’d be curious about whether music actually had any effect on those cats while the people were away.

    As a human, I’m absolutely math-averse, and have never been interested in reading music specifically because Western music, at least, is relentlessly mathematical. I learned to play guitar by ear, and still rely on that physiological cue to learn new stuff and practice the old. That said, I still get chills from a relatively brief – about 15 seconds – portion of an Eric Clapton solo from his lengthy rendition of “Beautiful Tonight” on the album “24 Nights.” I once tried to get an explanation from a guitar instructor about why that particular segment sent chills up my spine – and still does, many years later – but neither he nor I had any clue.

    Now I at least have a clue, involving both my own aging brain and the concept of avoiding the predictable – something Clapton has been able to do with some frequency throughout his guitar-playing career.

    Thanks for this piece, Susan. It’s always worthwhile to learn something about one’s self in a context that’s at least partly scientific.

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