Do you feel 'chills' when you hear songs you love? Scientists now understand why

Rob Waugh
·Contributor
·2 min read
Enjoying his favorite music. Happy young stylish man in sunglasses with headphones listening and smiling while standing against blue neon background
Do you feel 'chills' when listening to music? (Getty)

If you ever feel ‘chills’ running up your spine when you listen to music, you are not alone – and scientists now understand more about why it happens.

The researchers now believe that enjoyment of music may have served an important evolutionary purpose – perhaps helping our ancestors predict what will happen next.

Not everyone experiences “chills” when listening to music, it’s only about half of us who do so, according to the French neuroscientists behind a new study into the phenomenon.

The researchers attached brain-scanning electroencephalography (EEG) headsets to volunteers who said they regularly experienced chills while listening to music.

The research was published in Frontiers in Neuroscience.

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The researchers were able to measure response inside the listeners' brains – and not just in the places the volunteers expected.

Thibault Chabin, of the Université de Bourgogne Franche-Comté in Besançon, said: “Participants of our study were able to precisely indicate ‘chill-producing’ moments in the songs, but most musical chills occurred in many parts of the extracts and not only in the predicted moments.”

Whenever a participant experienced a “chill”, Chabin and his team were able to see electrical activity in brain regions related to emotions and audio processing.

The researchers saw specific electrical activity in the orbitofrontal cortex (a region involved in emotional processing), the supplementary motor area (a mid-brain region involved in movement control) and the right temporal lobe (a region on the right side of the brain involved in auditory processing and musical appreciation).

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The researchers say that these regions work together to process music, trigger the brain's reward systems, and release dopamine – the "feel-good" hormone and neurotransmitter.

Combined with the pleasurable anticipation of your favorite part of the song, this produces the tingly chills listeners enjoy.

The researchers believe that being able to “see” chills will allow further understanding of the phenomenon.

Chabin said: "The fact that we can measure this phenomenon with EEG brings opportunities for study in other contexts, in scenarios that are more natural and within groups.

"This represents a good perspective for musical emotion research."

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"What is most intriguing is that music seems to have no biological benefit to us. However, the implication of dopamine and of the reward system in processing of musical pleasure suggests an ancestral function for music,” added Chabin.

This ancestral function may lie in the period of time we spend in anticipation of the "chill-inducing" part of the music.

As we wait, our brains are busy predicting the future and release dopamine.

Evolutionarily speaking, being able to predict what will happen next is essential for survival.