It’s 2006. I’m on the school bus listening to my iPod, when “Hurt” comes along.” The song begins softly, a wistful Cash singing loss and regret from a sparse acoustic pinch.
As a freshman in high school, I know nothing of the song’s mature themes of aging and death. But halfway through the song, something happens. The guitar and piano increase in volume, and Cash’s voice begins to crescendo. I feel the hairs stand up on my neck. A hot shiver runs up my spine and goosebumps appear on my arms. It looks like something big is going on. I don’t know what exactly. But something happens.
And by the time I expect the song to decrescendo, like it did in the previous chorus… It doesn’t. Cash’s voice moans over pounding piano and guitar that threatens to blast my headphones.
Suddenly, my body is seized by a ravishing electricity; my spirit is invigorated by an indescribable fusion of ecstasy, awe, despair and longing. And in an instant, I realize something deep in my bones:
That’s what it’s like to be alive.
The physiology of shivering
There’s a word that describes this common human response to music – a word for “that moment” when a song pierces your body and soul. It’s called “thrill,” and it’s why music from artists as disparate as Johnny Cash, Metallica, Celine Dion, and Mozart are all featured on a newly released, science-backed playlist. songs that researchers say are likely to give people “chills.” The 715-song playlist was curated by a team of neuroscientists and is available on Spotify.
“Frisson” derives from French and is “a feeling or sudden sensation of excitement, excitement, or thrill”, and the experience is not limited to music. Historically, thrill has been used interchangeably with the term “cosmetic chills.”
According to a 2019 study, one can experience chills when looking at a brilliant sunset or a beautiful painting; when realizing a deep intuition or truth; when reading a particularly resonant line of poetry; or watching the climax of a movie.
Researchers often describe the thrill as a “piloerection” (or “cutaneous orgasm”) noting that the experience retains “biological and psychological components similar to sexual orgasm”. Some refer to the chill as “pleasurable goosebumps”, while others argue that the definition should be broadened “to include other noticeable non-cutaneous reactions such as tearing, lumpy throat sensations and muscle tension/relaxation. “.
While it is understood that the appreciation of beauty is at the heart of what makes us human, researchers are unsure what evolutionary advantage this sensitivity might have given our species. The current consensus is that it has something to do with our need to understand our environment:
“Aesthetic thrills correspond to a satisfaction of the internal drive of humans to acquire knowledge about the external world and to perceive objects and situations as having meaning. In humans, this need to explore and understand environmental conditions is a biological prerequisite for survival.
What causes the thrill?
In his 2006 book sweet expectation, Musicologist David Huron offers a compelling explanation for why we experience such powerful reactions to music. He calls it “contrastive valence theory,” in which emotional states are strongly influenced by contrast.
“If we feel bad at first and then feel good, the the good feeling tends to be stronger than if the good experience happened without the previous bad feeling. This is due to a regulatory process called “cognitive appraisal,” in which our minds use cognitive and linguistic processes to reframe the meaning of a stimulus. Huron uses the idea of a surprise party to illustrate this phenomenon:
“When a person is surprised unexpectedly by his friends, the first reaction is terror: his eyelids retract and his jaw drops. But in less than half a second, the fear is replaced with joyous celebration as the individual recognizes their friends and the positive social significance of the event.
According to Huron, when the evaluation response confirms that there is no threat, contrastive valence transforms negative feelings into something positive.
Consider Metallica’s “Master of Puppets” (one of three Metallica songs featured on the curated playlist). It’s understandable that your immediate emotional reaction to the song’s shocking intro was one of fear and apprehension. But through “cognitive reappraisal,” that initial adrenaline rush can turn into something positive when you realize you’re safe and it’s the music that makes you feel that way.
Also note how this experience relates to how our brain anticipates. This ties in with Huron’s larger argument in sweet expectation, which is built on ideas popularized by renowned musical psychologist Leonard Meyer.
The Emotional Power of Violated Expectations
According to an article by Frontiers in Psychology“Expectation violations (e.g., harmonic, rhythmic, and/or melodic violations) are strongly correlated with the onset of musical thrill, so some level of violated expectation may be a prerequisite.”
Our minds, which have evolved to predict future outcomes to ensure our survival, always anticipate how something will unfold. And when our initial predictions are wrong, depending on the situation, we can feel anything from anger to surprise to thrill.
Thinking back to my experience listening to Johnny Cash, it was at the exact moment the song “violated my expectations” that I felt chills. When I anticipated the song was going to wane, it even more crescendo. And, as Huron’s book explains, the most reliable indicator of musical thrill is an increase in volume.
Other reliable indicators include the input of one or more instruments or voices; a sudden change in tempo or rhythm; a new or unexpected harmony; and brutal modulation. Musical psychologist John Sloboda found that the most common types of musical phrases to induce chills were “chord progressions descending the circle of fifths to the tonic.” This is a deeply touching chord progression common to many of Mozart’s compositions.
Some researchers have also noted how the “human scream” can induce a musical thrill. Huron writes:
“The adult human cry displays a disproportionate amount of energy in the broad 0-6 kHz region, where human hearing is best. A human cry is the sound that humans can hear at the greatest distance.
There are few things more powerful (or traumatic) than a human scream, and Professor William O. Beeman, in his work make adults crynotes how professional singers (especially opera singers) exploit this auditory sensitivity.
Consider the soaring choruses of Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On” or Adele’s “Hello” or John Lennon’s screams on the Beatles’ “Twist & Shout” (all featured on the playlist). Or listen to Merry Clayton’s legendary backing vocals on The Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter.”
On YouTube there is an excerpt from the 2013 film 20 feet from fame in which Clayton’s vocal track is isolated. If you scroll through the comments section, you’ll see plenty of people citing Clayton’s vocals as the reason for the song’s power — especially the accidental crack in her voice as she screams “murder.” Her screams trigger a primal response within us.
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It should be noted that there are many different disciplines outside of evolutionary biology that offer compelling explanations for the thrill, ranging from the anthropological (Jeanette Bicknell’s Why music moves us) to ethnomusicology (Judith Becker’s Deep listeners) to the psychosocial study of “emotional contagion” (“Toward a Unified Theory of Musical Emotions” by Patrik Juslin).
And Huron’s “contrasting valence theory” can help us better understand what’s going on behind the scenes when we experience this deep emotional state.
By stimulating and harnessing our primitive threat detection systems, music activates deeply integrated neural networks that have evolved over millions of years. It’s no wonder we feel the songs so deeply in our hearts: the music reminds us of what it’s like to be alive.