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March 09, 2017

Infrequently Asked Questions: Why does music give you 'chills'?

You know the chills I'm talking about.

Maybe it's a high note in a song, a melody that moves you or a verse that just strikes you at your core. But music has an uncanny way of making a physical impact, making you feel the same way you would if you were spiraling through the air on a roller coaster.

Here, Ausim Azizi, professor and chair of the Department of Neurology at the Lewis Katz School of Medicine at Temple University, explains what's going on in the brain -- and body. 

Why do we feel chills? How is it that some songs literally make you tingle from head to toe?

The mechanism, what’s happening in the brain and the body, is music activates the brain stem and then goes up to the part of the brain called the cerebrum. Then it comes to the conscious level. So, even before this is on a conscious level, it harmonizes certain parts of the brain that are responsible for the parasympathetic and sympathetic [parts of the nervous system] … responsible for giving you those sensations of chill, pleasure or other types of sensations.

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Supporting this is also that the body goes before the brain. And what that means is that when we listen to something or hear something, there are things that, before consciousness actually realizes it, things happen in our body. Those things then translate into feelings. So, if you think of chills going through you, that’s because music goes through parts of the brain and then it activates other parts of the brain that cause the heart to flutter, or hair to stand out or have chills. And a lot of this has to do with what kind of harmonics it causes. Some are coherent and some are not. The sensations, the not-coherent ones will just kind of jar your sensations.

Can you explain what you mean when you refer to 'harmonics'? And 'coherent' versus 'not coherent'?

The brain is an organ for adaptation of organisms to their environment – physical and social. As such, it responds to threats by a fight and flight mechanism, and to opportunities [for] relaxation and receptiveness.  These responses are mediated through the autonomic nervous system that controls skin changes, blood flow, heart and breathing rate, blood pressure, gut motility, etc. The autonomic nervous system operates in a push-pull manner and is connected to the ancient areas of the human brain such as the hypothalamus and the limbic system and operate at a subconscious level. 

Music is a complex sound stimulus that is generally associated with pleasure response -- so, good times like a party or a wedding. Hearing a piece of pleasant music that is harmonious and coherent with a pleasure response in the brain activates the autonomic nervous system that, at a subconscious level, evokes body response of excitement and relaxation. Shivers down the spine, increased breathing and heart rate changes, etc.

The whole idea of your body reacting first, it’s kind of like a thermometer for how you’re feeling.

Exactly. In fact, the whole theory of feelings is that they're not something magical that happen to the brain. It’s that the brain – it's a constellation or mixture of [processes in the body] that become all the feelings, whether it be anger, be it anxiety or other things. The brain is sensing what the body is feeling.

In a practical sense, has knowledge of these effects of music on the brain proven useful?

Studies are inconclusive …Though, music has been applied to "torture" people and also to calm them down.

You've noted music as being an 'ancient' study in communication. What do you mean by that? 

Music is a form of communication that can signal a threat, like from a saber-toothed tiger, or an opportunity -- like a mate at a party.