Friday, February 26, 2010

Musical Emotions: Chills Edition


I'm one of the people who gets them when I listen to music I find really, really enjoyable. In fact, there are a whole range of emotions I can go through while listening to something I really like. Last Saturday night, I definitely was on the peak end of experiencing intense music-related emotions while watching my bandmate and favorite drummer, Jessica Caesar play during this song at The Dirty Little Heaters' CD release show. Take a look:

So what is this whole "chills" thing about anyway? What makes listening to music so pleasurable and fun? One theory that a group of researchers decided to test was that music is so much fun for us to listen to because the pleasure we feel while listening correlates to a sort of physical emotional response.

The Rewarding Aspects of Music Listening Are Related to Degree of Emotional Arousal

In order to test this, they got twenty-six suckers experimental subjects to agree to be hooked up to this machine that takes measurements of all kinds of bodily responses that basically told the researchers how psyched the people were to be listening to different types of music. Here's what that machine looked like:

These robotic-looking hand and torso machines measured the listeners' heart rate, respiration rate, body temperature, galvanic skin response (GSR), and blood volume pulse (BVP) amplitude. The music the subjects listened to was music they had picked out themselves that they really enjoyed, so much that it gave them the chills. As a control, the researchers selected music that the subjects rated beforehand as neutral or "boring" in order to compare the subjects' physical response readings from that dull music to the chills-inducing music. The experiment took place as the subjects sat in a sound-proof room, listened to the music, the machines took their measurements, and the subjects pressed buttons on their robot-hands to indicate what they were feeling during each moment that the music played. The ratings ranged from "meh" to "pleasurable" to "whoa, I got chills." But, of course, the ratings were on a more scientific and quantitative rating scale of 1-3 (1 ="neutral," 2="low pleasure," 3 = "high pleasure," and a fourth button = "chills" because, as you can see above, they only had a thumb to work with).

The results were pretty interesting. In all the physical markers stated above (i.e. heart rate, respiration) they saw significant differences in readings between the music the subjects found boring and the music they found pleasurable. The pleasurable music got a higher physiological response out of the subjects, while the boring music didn't seem to have much of an effect on the markers of emotional arousal. This makes sense because my heart isn't exactly pounding when I hear some boring elevator music in a department store.

They also found that the chills were reported at the same moments in the music that the subjects reported ratings of highest pleasure. In fact, 80% of the chills occurred at the highest moment of pleasure reported. Again, this makes a lot of sense to me because I don't exactly get chills when I'm feeling that the music I'm listening to is good, but not great. I get chills when I can't tear my attention away and a musical experience feels all encompassing and highly pleasurable, and it seems that was what the subjects in the study were feeling too.

The most interesting thing they found was that the chills the subjects reported matched right up with the peak readings from the physical markers of emotional arousal. Check it out on the graph below:

The different boxes show the different physical indicators of emotional arousal of which the machines took measurements. As you can see, they all peaked at the moment when the subjects reported experiencing chills. The two exceptions here are skin surface temperature and BVP amplitude, but these actually got LOWER instead of higher like the other factors.

So basically, the researchers came away from this study with a strong correlation between subjective emotional response and objective physical response to music. When we get chills or feel intense pleasure when listening to music we enjoy, there is an actual range of bodily responses that go along with that! This seems like common sense, but this is important scientifically because having an actual, quantitative measure of the changes our bodies go through when experiencing good music opens doors to scientists thinking about other questions like, "why is music so unique that it causes actual emotional and physical arousal?"

Usually emotional responses have a definite function, such as joy from eating good food serves to keep us alive, or bonding with friends keeps us happy and connected to our fellow humans. Feeling these emotions helps us by making sure we keep doing the things that are good for our survival and well-being. But music is one of the only things that makes us happy without having a clear beneficial function to our survival as human beings. I think that makes it pretty special and interesting, and that makes me content to consume and play it.

P.S. Another fun thing to do with the paper is to check out what music the initial pool of subjects picked for the study as their favorites (this link opens a doc file with the full list). As with any wide pool of people, the results range widely!

Salimpoor VN, Benovoy M, Longo G, Cooperstock JR, & Zatorre RJ (2009). The rewarding aspects of music listening are related to degree of emotional arousal. PloS one, 4 (10) PMID: 19834599


  1. I too had chills ALL Saturday night at the show!

  2. Great post! About the question of "why" ---> I have some theories that I'll be exploring in my second book (but I have to get the first book done, first).

  3. I'm not sure what the usefulness of the study was. It showed that people gets chills listening to music they already have identified from before the sessions as having that affect on them. Also it's not surprising that body temp dropped because the body is trying to conserve heat when experiencing chills (this is a well-known aspect of "the chills").

    To me it would have been more interesting to not have the subjects choose their own music, but to see which and what kinds of music inspired chills on average, unexpectedly.

    Personally, in my case I have noticed that the same music that gave me chills in my youth doesn't provide that effect now in middle age - so it's interesting to me to see if the chill effect changes with age. Also it would be good to see what effects cultural background has. Is what produces chills for a southeast asian person predictably different from what produces chills from a midwest USA native?

    So it seems that the researchers were on to something, but the study could have been targeted to explore questions that did not already have such obvious answers.

    We already knew that people get chills listening to music they love, and that chills is a particular kind of physiological response that include a slight drop in skin temperature.

    The study seems to me to be a kind of preliminary study that could establish some baselines. More studies should be done to find out what music tends to give more people the chills than others, on average, and what the effects of musical cultural conditionings are on one's preference in music.

  4. You are absolutely right that this study was primarily to establish baselines. I think a lot of your ideas are pretty interesting too, and hopefully some of those topics will be explored in future studies.

    A lot of times in science you have to establish evidence for the basic stuff before you can get to the fun and exciting areas. :)

  5. Great post! I see why they picked it. You summarized it very nicely.

  6. Music and Emotions

    The most difficult problem in answering the question of how music creates emotions is likely to be the fact that assignments of musical elements and emotions can never be defined clearly. The solution of this problem is the Theory of Musical Equilibration. It says that music can't convey any emotion at all, but merely volitional processes, the music listener identifies with. Then in the process of identifying the volitional processes are colored with emotions. The same happens when we watch an exciting film and identify with the volitional processes of our favorite figures. Here, too, just the process of identification generates emotions.

    An example: If you perceive a major chord, you normally identify with the will "Yes, I want to...". If you perceive a minor chord, you identify normally with the will "I don't want any more...". If you play the minor chord softly, you connect the will "I don't want any more..." with a feeling of sadness. If you play the minor chord loudly, you connect the same will with a feeling of rage. You distinguish in the same way as you would distinguish, if someone would say the words "I don't want anymore..." the first time softly and the second time loudly.
    Because this detour of emotions via volitional processes was not detected, also all music psychological and neurological experiments, to answer the question of the origin of the emotions in the music, failed.

    But how music can convey volitional processes? These volitional processes have something to do with the phenomena which early music theorists called "lead", "leading tone" or "striving effects". If we reverse this musical phenomena in imagination into its opposite (not the sound wants to change - but the listener identifies with a will not to change the sound) we have found the contents of will, the music listener identifies with. In practice, everything becomes a bit more complicated, so that even more sophisticated volitional processes can be represented musically.

    Further information is available via the free download of the e-book "Music and Emotion - Research on the Theory of Musical Equilibration:

    or on the online journal EUNOMIOS:

    Enjoy reading

    Bernd Willimek

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