This is why you get chills while listening to your favorite song

Key Takeaways

  • Studies have shown that at least 55% of people experience pleasant chills while listening to music they enjoy.
  • A recent study further examined this phenomenon, showing how music activates the pleasure and reward centers of the brain, raising questions about the role of music in human evolution.
  • With these basic features in mind, listening to music can be considered an act of self-care that boosts the immune system and helps alleviate anxiety and depression.

You’ve got your headphones on, lost in a song, when a particularly powerful chorus or instrumental break sends tingles down your arms and legs. Or maybe the hair on the back of your neck is standing on end. If you’re familiar with some version of this feeling, you’ll join the 55% to 90% of people who experience musical chills.oror

This is a phenomenon that can occur during live or recorded music, new or familiar, and has been documented over the years. But one question remains: why does it happen?

Researchers have found the answer, and a recent study has been published Frontiers in Neuroscience Mapping the brain’s electrical activity during musical conditioning sheds more light on how music can activate the brain’s pleasure and reward centers.oror


Neuroscientists based in France used high-density electroencephalography (HD-EEG) to image patterns of cerebral activity when people were exposed to pleasant musical stimuli. Eighteen volunteers, 11 women and seven men participated. All reported feeling chilled during the enjoyable music before the study.

Using HD-EEG, electrodes were placed on a large area of ​​participants’ scalps to scan and measure electrical activity in the brain. Once hooked up, each participant listened to five cold-inducing musical pieces given to them, as well as three additional neutral pieces chosen by the researchers, and were asked to report their emotional pleasure.

They did this by continuously pressing one of four buttons corresponding to the intensity of the experience (neutral, low pleasure, high pleasure, chills). A “chill event” was defined as heightened emotional pleasure accompanied by the physical sensation of goosebumps, tingling sensations, hair standing on end, or shivers down the spine.

Thibault Chaubin, lead researcher

Ancient brain circuits essential for survival and involved in motivated behavior – such as sex, food, money – are also involved in the pleasure process of music.

– Thibault Chabin, lead researcher

The scans revealed the presence of theta activity, which is associated with memory, reward anticipation and attention. These abilities are all key to musical mental processing. These findings match previous MRI and PET scan studies and open a new door to understanding our ancestral relationship with music.oror

Neuroscience and Evolution

The results of this study suggest that our enjoyment of music may once have served an evolutionary purpose.

“Older brain circuits are involved in essential survival and motivated behaviors – such as sex, food, money – as well as, in processing the pleasure of music,” said lead study researcher Thibault Chabin. “So, we know howNow we have to understand why Music is joyful and rewarding.”

Experts have long debated whether music has a biological function. While some consider music a byproduct of human existence, others theorize that it gave our species a leg up.

Consider the fact that music releases oxytocin, the “cuddle hormone” that promotes bonding, in the brain.orFrom an evolutionary perspective, the emergence of music may have fostered interdependence and social cohesion. Bonded groups that worked together were more likely to survive.

The world’s oldest musical instruments were discovered inside a German cave: a set of 43,000-year-old flutes made from bird bones and mammoth ivory. Instruments are believed to have been first used in entertainment and rituals.oror

“In a cave, the flute sounded divine, and it allowed for a sense of connection that strengthened survival,” says Kathleen Howland, Ph.D., professor of music therapy at Berklee College of Music. “The advent of the flute will make for a significant change in this community A sensible man.”

Kathleen Howland, Ph.D

The advent of the flute would make for a significant change in this community A prudent man.

– Kathleen Howland, Ph.D

Historically, music has been used as a tool to maintain this social cohesion. As a means of identification, music often helps distinguish between in-groups and out-groups—think of today’s national anthems, protest chants, or the sense of camaraderie promoted by singing at live concerts.

Anthropologists have suggested that these modern iterations of the song may have arisen from “coordinated territorial defense signals”, similar to howling wolves at the moon. Early humans created music together to further bond and promote survival.oror

Music for mental health

Music’s primary properties may be particularly useful to us today, even beyond the production of feel-good hormones. Thinking back to the first flute, music has played a role in calming the human mind since its inception.

“I can imagine babies being born who were cool with music,” Howland says. “I instinctively feel that they already found singing in children, because it saved them valuable calories for survival when they were not suffering.”

As a music therapist, Howland is acutely aware of the ways that certain types of music can trigger the brain’s relaxation response and help relieve anxiety and depression. Additionally, studies have shown that music can potentially boost the immune system and helps treat conditions like Alzheimer’s.

“There are wonderful ways to get to that sweet spot—meditation, yoga, tai chi—but music has an immediacy and a sense of familiarity that’s intuitive and ubiquitous, so we can bring that desire to a person in pain or anxiety in the hospital with music therapy,” Howland says. .

As we navigate stressful, uncertain times, music can be a powerful tool used independently and with others. Sharing the experience of listening to favorite songs with friends, incorporating dance and movement, And even the interconnection of visual art interpretations such as drawing or painting can amplify the beneficial emotional effects of music.

“If you’re in a place of top pressure like we are now, three to five minutes of music (you can) get to the point where time is wasting away, you’re lost in imagery,” Howland said. “It’s an easily accessible resource, and it’s a beautiful one to share.”

What does the future hold?

This study is the first to use high-density EEG to monitor cerebral activity while listening to music.orResearchers like Chabin hope to advance the understanding of musical pleasure, and this study is just the beginning. Now that the groundwork has been successfully laid for imaging the brain activity associated with musical pleasure, the next phase of research can be conducted outside the lab with EEG.

“This research in laboratory conditions was a first step before other experiments in natural settings during concerts, where we want to measure how musical emotions are transmitted in people,” says Chaubin.

With wireless mobile EEG systems, the cerebral activity of individual participants can be observed simultaneously within a group setting. A better understanding of groups’ sensory synchronization will further piece together the puzzle of music’s role in our lives.

“We’ll finally unlock the magic of the biology behind it,” Howland says. “We’re taking it further and it’s beautiful.”

What does this mean for you?

While it is unclear whether our ancestral connection to music is linked to our survival as a species, it has a positive effect on our brains. In times of stress, listening to music is a readily available resource for improving mental health.

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