Why Music Gives You The Chills

I never knew what the intense physical sensations certain songs gave me were until I heard about the phenomenon called ASMR. Could it be the answer to my musical mystery?

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Ever hear a sound that makes you feel like Super Mario looks when he gets an invincibility star?

A few weeks ago I read an article on Vice called "ASMR, the Good Feeling No One Can Explain." One ASMR — sufferer? experiencer? practitioner? whateverer? — named Maria described it like

feeling like “bubbles in your head,” and compared it to getting a scalp massage, but the sensation is on the inside. She went on: “It’s like a little explosion, and then just little sparkles and little stars going down [your back]. Depending on the strength of the trigger, it might just go into the top of the spine of the shoulders, but sometimes it goes down to your arms and legs, and other parts.”

I think this moment from Velvet Goldmine summed up my reaction to this best:

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(The part where Batman jumps up and down pointing and shouting "That is me! That's me, that! That's me!", not the part where Henry VIII says "everybody knows most people are bisexual," although yeah, that too.)

The term ASMR, or Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response, is used to refer to a self-diagnosed condition in which tingles radiate downward from the top of the head through the neck, spine, and limbs, accompanied by feelings of euphoria, in response to various sensory triggers, from whispered speech to tapping sounds to simply watching a person do something efficiently. Many of the triggers involve somebody playing close attention — to a task, to you, to a task involving you — which gave rise to early stabs at a name for the phenomenon like AIHO (Attention Induced Head Orgasm) or AIE (Attention Induced Euphoria). Discovering its existence told me that no, not everyone experiences what I do, but yes, plenty of people do. And they like to talk about it — as they've done here, here, here, and here, among other places. They have a dot-org and a Reddit community.

What they're describing reminds me an awful lot of the sensation I experienced recently, walking down 7th Avenue in Manhattan to get lunch at Panera Bread, when suddenly the TV on the Radio song I was listening to on my iPod made me feel like my nerves had suddenly been switched to "sparkle":

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It's the moment they pound out those four big echoey piano notes right after the first chorus that does it. My scalp, my neck, my arms and spine and back, the sides of my chest — they feel like tiny waves of intense, tingling bubbles are pulsing through them. I've had this exhilarating experience during certain musical moments for as long as I can remember, and every time it feels like magic. The genre doesn't seem to matter, based on a sampling of stuff I've listened to recently that's done the trick; the moments themselves simply share a certain sense of drama.

Like when the big duet harmonies kick in during the last chorus of Gotye's "Somebody That I Used to Know" after Kimbra's big buildup:

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Or when that first chorus creeps up on you in "Lightning Crashes" by Live — a song I probably hadn't thought of in 10 years before I caught it while flipping through the car radio, and it gave me enough chills to make me shudder in the driver's seat:

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Or when D'Angelo falsettos his way back to the big triumphant final chorus in "Untitled":

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Or in my favorite song, the Trainspotting soundtrack standout and EDM classic "Born Slippy .NUXX" by Underworld, any time that signature three-note synth hook bursts back out after a prolonged absence (wait for it...wait for it...):

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For years I assumed that everyone experienced this sensation. After all, people say "ooh, that gave me chills" all the time, right? Because it was so common, or so I thought, I never bothered mentioning to anyone, even as I developed a go-to list of songs that can practically shiver my spine out of my body with this sensation: "Mother" by Tori Amos, the live version of "Heartbeats" by the Knife, "Let Down" by Radiohead, pretty much anything at an Underworld concert. But by the time I had my Panera/"Province" moment, something had changed. I'd learned about ASMR, and found my people.

Or had I? This is from the r/asmr community guidelines:

NO music videos. ASMR is different from frisson, the kind of chill most people get from music. (ASMR vs. Frisson). While it is sometimes possible to get ASMR from music, all music videos will be deleted, as to avoid confusion with the two types of reaction.

Hold on, though: At, music's right in there among the "common external triggers":

•Exposure to slow, accented, or unique speech patterns
•Viewing educational or instructive videos or lectures
•Experiencing a high empathetic or sympathetic reaction to an event
Enjoying a piece of art or music
•Watching another person complete a task, often in a diligent, attentive manner - examples would be filling out a form, writing a check, going through a purse or bag, inspecting an item closely, etc.
•Close, personal attention from another person•Haircuts, or other touch from another on head or back

(Emphasis added.)

Hm, okay. None of the other triggers do much of anything for me, as I discovered when I dipped into the vast reservoir of ASMR videos on YouTube. Quiet tapping and scratching sounds can be pleasant to listen to in a rain-on-the-windowpane way:

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And some of the whispering videos can give me a twitchy feeling, like the one your dog gets when you scratch behind his ear:

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But none of the non-musical ASMR trigger videos give me the chills. Yet I couldn't help but feel that some of the pushback against musical triggers was standard Internet-niche boundary-policing. What's more, the r/asmr guideline's contention that "most people" get the chills from music — or frisson — didn't square with my experience: When I described those tingles to friends, pretty much no one had any idea what I was talking about. (My mom says she gets them from The Phantom of the Opera, but that's about it.) It seemed like if I wanted to figure out what I was experiencing, I had to take this to the experts.

Unfortunately, there aren't any. To date, ASMR's existence has been established only by the overlapping symptoms described by people who say they've experienced it. As Steven Novella of SkepticBlog reported, a search for the term in the massive database of medical publications yields no results. "It’s mainly been talk so far, but we are very interested and consider it one of our goals: to get assistance from the scientific community in some capacity," says Andrew MacMuiris, founder of the pioneering ASMR blog The Unnamed Feeling and an outreach agent for the ASMR Research site. "I imagine it will be necessary."

Turns out the answer there is yes and no. I reached out to a number of experts in the fields of music cognition, evolutionary psychology, and social psychology, and while none of them knew of any work on the phenomenon, none of them expressed much doubt about its existence, either. "It exists as a physiological effect, for sure," says Robin Dunbar, Professor of Evolutionary Psychology at Oxford University.

Hauke Egermann, a research associate with the Audio Communication Group at Technische Universität Berlin, points to a 2011 study that tested musical chill triggers alongside other sounds, the touch of a scalp massager and a feather, and even the sour tastes of grapefruit and lemon as a potential precedent for ASMR's non-musical triggers. "If listeners or participants report this experience in an experimental setting to me, I must take it for real," he says. "However, to my best knowledge, the term 'ASMR' has not be used in our research field."

In the meantime we've only got the reports of people who've experienced both ASMR and musical frisson, and they point to some pretty clear differences. "It's like a buildup, an emotional climax," says the r/asmr moderator Mahi_Mahi of frisson. "It makes you feel energized and alive." She describes ASMR as "more want to melt in your chair and purr like a cat. This can last for quite a long time, as long as the triggers last," as opposed to the more momentary feeling of frisson. MacMuiris concurs: "ASMR elicits a pleasurable tingling sensation and a relaxed feeling — even to the point where someone falls asleep. Frisson does produce a tingling sensation, but it is somewhat different, and it amps you."

Mahi_Mahi notes that while music that shares the same soothing or repetitive characteristics of non-musical ASMR triggers can cause the response, that's very different from the "big climax category" of music and its separate set of resulting sensations. Other ASMR Redditors break it down in much the same way; across the board, the frisson researchers I spoke with associated the sensation with intense emotion, not relaxation. The word "euphoria" gets used a lot to describe both phenomena, but with frisson it means "psyched up," and with ASMR "blissed out."

Many experts seem to draw a distinction between the two as well. David Huron, Professor at the School of Music at Ohio State University, says ASMR is not the same as frisson. "The [ASMR] effect is clearly strongly related to the perception of non-threat and altruistic attention," says Huron, who notes that there's a strong similarity to physical grooming in primates. "Non-human primates derive enormous pleasure (bordering on euphoria) when being groomed by a grooming partner." And, says Huron, they groom each other not to get clean, but rather to bond with each other.

Oxford's Dunbar, who has studied primate grooming extensively, contrasts the beta-endorphin release responsible for grooming's relaxation effect with the dopamine dump responsible for bursts of excitement like those experienced during musical frisson. Frisson, he says, "looks suspiciously like a 'pay attention' mechanism that allows you to zoom in on a potential mate/friend/ally or whatever so that you can now start to target them and develop an appropriate relationship (that will ultimately be built on the endorphin mechanism)." That could explain the tingling component to the relaxation-based ASMR experience.

So that leaves musical chills as their own separate beast. And though they're far from unheard of, they're less common than ASMR people allege. "The literature in music cognition tends to claim that between 1/3 and 1/2 of people experience chills in response to music," says Lisa Margulis, Associate Professor and Director of the Music Cognition Lab at the University of Arkansas. She says certain kinds of people are more likely to get them: performing musicians (a whopping 90 percent!), women, and people who rank low on the "sensation seeking" dimension of personality. "They don't need a roller coaster to blow their mind," Margulis says. "A few measures of Mahler is enough."

Interestingly, the type of person you are matters more than the type of music you listen to. Emily C. Nusbaum, a researcher and doctoral student at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, notes that in a study she helped conduct, those who rank high on "openness to experience" also experienced chills more frequently. These types of people tend to listen to more technically complex music — so researchers thought at first that they got chills more often simply because they tended to listen to more chill-inducing music. But in fact, says Nusbaum, "We were surprised to find that the type of music people listened to really didn't matter in terms of getting chills."

What did matter was the structure, not the genre. "Large shifts in tempo or volume and sudden entrance or exit of vocals or instruments seem to be the big winners in eliciting chills," she says, citing work done by Huron and Margulis. Or as Egermann puts it, "Music that has the capability to surprise listeners might be more likely to induce strong emotional responses, including those that are so strong that they include chills."

Margulis agrees. "Generally, [frisson-inducing passages] involve some sudden, radical change — these moments are surprising and unexpected," she says. "In addition, they're often high energy: really loud, or involving lots of instruments playing all at once." She and Huron pinpointed "The Final Cut" by Pink Floyd as a case in point.

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But does that mean once you've heard a song and know what's coming, you're less likely to get chills from it? "Not at all," says Margulis. "In fact, sometimes quite the opposite!" "Being familiar and preferring a certain piece of music definitely increases the chances of experiencing chills," Egermann echoes. The key here is that you can expect what will happen in a particular piece (these are known "veridical expectations") and still contrast it with what normally happens in music generally (these are "schematic expectations"). A big shift in volume or tone will still feel surprising no matter how many times you've heard it happen, because most of the time, music doesn't do that. In fact, says Margulis, "moments of closure" -- the times when you are familiar enough with how melodies or rhythms or other forms of musical structure work to guess how a particular element will resolve itself -- are the easiest places to surprise us. "That's why a composer can throw in something tricky at a cadence and blow your mind."

In other words, frisson is a matter of expecting the unexpected: building to something big, something listeners can hear coming -- but then doing it so much bigger, more exciting, more unexpected, that it blows up their nervous system anyway, every time. If you build it, the chills will come.

That means musicians can make music that does this on purpose. And for real, man, they should.

One musician, at least, is already doing so: the choral composer Eric Whitacre, whose "Virtual Choir" projects -- in which he stitches together a full performance of his works from the separately recorded YouTube videos of hundreds of individual singers -- went viral last year:

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In that song, "Lux Aurumque," the passage from about 1:13 to 1:30 is chill city for me -- like suddenly seeing the sun come out from behind the clouds. Whitacre's music consistently does this for me, more than any other artist. In particular, his devastating masterpiece "When David Heard," written for a friend and collaborator who'd lost his son to a car crash, contains two enormous builds and releases that I have literally never listened to without starting to cry from the sheer emotional and physiological overload of it all. I defy you to make it to 2:08 without your brain freaking out:

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Listen to the whole 15-minute-plus thing and I swear you'll be a different person on the other end. That's what Whitacre's after.

"[Frisson is] arguably the reason I became a choral composer," he tells me. "I wouldn't say that I'm actually trying to cause chills in the audience, but certainly my goal is to, at the very least, effect a physiological response — at the most, to effect some sort of state change, ideally, in the audience."

But even very, very un-classical music triggers it in him. "It can even be in something totally innocuous, like Katy Perry's 'Fireworks.' I don't know what it is, but when she goes up and she sings the hook and the autotune and it's so in tune and it feels like the bottom drops out — I feel that same weird sense of euphoria."

Perry and other pop-radio EDM dabblers are just the tip of the iceberg; Whitacre says that dubstep, particularly "when the crazy low bass kicks in," has a similar effect on him. And even if you know the bass drop is coming, you can still be blown away by it. Whitacre, who created something of an EDM opera in the form of his musical Paradise Lost, thinks that's key: "I'm convinced it's less because of the harmony and the quality, more just the phenomenon of establishing a pattern for the human brain," he says. "It all has more to do with the architecture of the experience than the actual sound itself." He cites the climactic repetition of the title phrase in his song "Sleep" — identical the first two times, unexpectedly different the third — as a moment many of the singers he's worked with tell him is "where the heavens open."

What's the point of all this, evolutionarily speaking? Despite making a career out of it, Whitacre doesn't know anymore than I do. However, he lights up when presented with Dunbar's speculation that frisson is a precursor of sorts to a bonding experience on the horizon. "I wonder if that's the reason, and maybe the goal, for me," he says. "If you create that moment, create it throughout the entire audience, then everybody's bonded. They're actually closer — or at least the chemical illusion of it."