The first chord of your favorite song trickles out of the radio, and suddenly your neck is covered in goosebumps.
It’s a phenomenon that one group of scientists calls a “skin orgasm.” But the French call it frisson: chills caused not by a drop in temperature or sudden scare, but by aesthetics. Frisson can come from a song, a painting, a tear-jerking movie scene, or even a beloved memory—pretty much anything that causes the release of pleasure-soaked dopamine in your brain. But it does not come for all of us.
Your favorite music reveals a lot about your personality, but so does how you respond to that music. Studies speculate that as few as 55 percent of people experience frisson when listening to music.
And if you count yourself among this group, the goosebumps on your skin aren’t the only giveaway—scientists can read it in your brain, too. In a new study published in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience,
Harvard researchers performed brain scans on 10 students who said they reliably got chills when listening to music, and 10 students who didn’t. What they found: the chill-prone brain may literally be wired for stronger emotions.
“We found that people who reliably and frequently get the chills from music have more fibers connecting the auditory cortex to the emotional feeling and emotional processing states,” Matt Sachs, lead study author and PhD candidate at USC, said in an interview with USC News.
Chill-prone brains are literally wired to experience more intense emotional reactions to music, Sachs said, and are generally more likely to show a stronger emotional intelligence than no-chill brains. Other frisson studies have similarly concluded that chill-prone minds tend to have unusually active imaginations, reflect more deeply on their emotions, and appreciate nature and beauty to a stronger degree than no-chill brains.
Powerful social-emotional connections like these (plus the incredible health benefits of listening to music) suggest that there is some deep, evolutionary reason behind humankind’s love of making and listening to music.
So, what type of music causes the chills? The genre is not so important, it seems; participants in Sachs’ study reported getting chills from songs of every kind, from Bon Iver to Beethoven, Enya to Ella Fitzgerald, Kanye West to Aaron Copland. but there are a few musical mechanics that tend to produce the most reliable results.
– Songs that play on anticipation, building steadily toward an emotional climax. Think about songs like Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit” or Pink Floyd’s “Great Gig in The Sky.”
– Moments in a song that subvert expectation, bringing in a sudden key change or adding in a new voice to the melody. Think, anytime Freddie Mercury harmonizes with himself in “Somebody To Love” (or any other Queen song, for that matter).
– Any song connected with a strong emotional memory for the listener. For Sachs, that’s the song “Sailing to Philadelphia” by Mark Knopfler, which he listened to as a kid in the car with his dad, on the way to summer camp. Many people site Lady Gaga’s rendition of the National Anthem at Super Bowl 50, a new take on an intimately familiar song.
What song gives you chills? Take a few minutes to think about it. Your brain will thank you.