For many people, listening to music results in a natural high at some points in the performance. Scientists too have studied this effect and note that it produces physical symptoms such as an increased heart rate and causes goosebumps to appear on the surface of the skin.
The term which best defines such rushes of emotion is ‘frisson’, originally a French word whose meaning describes a passing thrill or an unexpected shudder of emotion. Though the phenomenon is well known, it has only recently attracted the attention of researchers.
How do frissons occur?
The response seems to occur most often when the listener encounters something striking or unexpected in a piece of music, releasing an emotional rush which literally transmits a shiver down the spine. This effect is the result of the release of dopamine within the brain. Though we all get goosebumps at times – when we’re afraid, when we feel happy making money at the online casino – it has been established that some 55-86% of the population often experience a frisson when listening to music.
One of a quartet of neurotransmitters known to create feelings of happiness, dopamine is rapidly spread across the appropriate nerve cells within the brain to elicit this sudden, feel-good response. And from a musical perspective, a frisson is most often the result of composers and performers delivering unexpected or climactic effects in situations where tension and/or anticipation has been built up and then released at a stroke. The musical devices employed to achieve this can include a change in volume, a modulation to a new key, the introduction of a new instrument or shimmering harmony, or the sounding of an ultra-high note.
A survival response
One theory explaining goosebumps and the frisson phenomenon suggests this originally served as a survival mechanism for our early ancestors. In the era before clothing, the hairs on the skin had an important function: They captured an endothermic heat layer below the hairs. A sudden change of temperature producing goosebumps then prompted a temporary raising or lowering of these hairs, thus regulating and resetting the level of insulating warmth offered by the layer of trapped air next to the skin.
Now that clothing has made this evolutionary response almost redundant, some scientists believe in many instances it has been ‘rewired’ to give emotional chills as an aesthetic reaction to extremely moving natural and artistic phenomena.
Who are the likely responders?
People who experience musical frissons tend to share a personality trait labelled Openness to Experience. Researchers say such people have unusually vivid imaginations, love nature and beauty, enjoy novelty and variety, and are inclined to be reflective individuals.
Then there is the question of genres: Though ‘great’ music does tend to have universally predictable effects on the majority of listeners, some discrepancies do occur. And, of course, rock fans may not appreciate a BBC Radio 3 broadcast of a Wagner opera, while connoisseurs of classical music may not readily take to Lady Gaga.
Scientists explain this by noting that research has found certain aspects of the Openness to Experience trait are essentially emotional (love of variety, appreciation of beauty) while others are cognitive (intellectual curiosity and imagination). And in addition, cognitive engagement with music (predicting what will unfold, as well as using the music to stimulate daydreaming images) has been found to have a greater influence on the occurrence of frissons than the purely emotional factors. That’s why frissons are more likely to occur in music which captures and/or reflects your interests than in genres to which you instantly ‘turn off’.