Do you ever get goosebumps when you hear music? Like, actual goosebumps? Like, the kind that makes your whole body shudder and shiver? The hair on your arms stands up and your heartbeat speeds up. You feel like you're on a rollercoaster, right before it drops.
It can happen while listening to a song on a music streaming app or in a concert hall, or while watching a movie with an amazing soundtrack. But what exactly is the science behind the phenomenon? And why does it happen?
Inside this article:
What is Frisson? Frisson definition
Frisson (pronounced free-sawn) is a French term meaning "aesthetic chills". It's defined by Wikipedia as "a brief, yet often intense experience of pleasure, attributed to physical or emotional stimuli".
Listening to music is the most common trigger of frisson, but other experiences can cause it too. We can get the “aesthetic chills” when appreciating great beauty in art, nature, or poetry.
In this article, we’re going to focus purely on musical frisson, the feeling you get when the power music moves you and you feel chills all over. It's not just about goosebumps, though—it's about a series of physiological responses that happen in your body when you hear a song.
But what makes certain songs give you chills? Is it because they're so good? Or is there something more going on here? Well, let's break down some of the possible reasons why certain songs can make you feel like you're hugged by an angel.
What causes Frisson
The frisson phenomenon is quite a tricky one and scientists are still unlocking it. Some have argued that frisson is related to feelings of awe, but others have suggested it's more about surprise.
The most popular theory is that frisson happens when an unexpected emotional or musical climax occurs while listening to music you're already enjoying, like a sudden change in tone, volume, or rhythmic pattern. So, musical frisson happens when you're positively surprised by something you weren’t expecting in a particular song. Think of sudden dynamic leaps (e.g. from soft to loud), quick varying sounds, or abrupt modulation.
Why do why get goosebumps while listening to music that strikes us? This might be an evolutionary trait that developed as a way for us to keep ourselves safe from danger. For example, if you hear a loud noise in the distance, your body might tense up in preparation for fight or flight. The same psychological reaction could be triggered when hearing something unexpected and unfamiliar in music: it prepares us for action even though there's no actual threat present. As a result, our body releases dopamine, giving us the sensation of chills and goosebumps. Our unconscious brain reacts as fast as possible to possible danger, but then comes the joy of recognizing that the stimulus is, in fact, harmless.
But other factors are important too.
One of them is emotional contagion. Emotional contagion occurs when we’re able to perceive and recognize an emotion that is expressed in music (for example sadness) AND induce this as our emotional state. If the emotional contagion occurs, there's a higher chance of experiencing frisson.
Frisson can be also amplified by the context that the piece has been listened to. If you listen to a movie soundtrack in a cinema, the overall volume and the film’s story provides intentional context, which creates a deeper emotional response.
And lastly, some findings indicate that people who intellectually immerse themselves in music (instead of letting it flow over them) might experience frisson more often and more intensely. To experience musical frisson, you need to really listen to music. If you're distracted by other things, or if you're just listening passively without focusing on it, then chances are good that you won't experience musical frisson at all.
Does everybody get goosebumps when listening to music
One of the most interesting things about frisson is that not everyone experiences it. Studies show that only about 55 percent of the population feels frisson, and it’s with varying degrees of intensity.
If you have never experienced frisson, don’t worry. Even for the most passionate aficionado, music-induced shivers are a relatively rare event.
What does musical frisson feel like
Frisson is most often described as a feeling associated with excitement and arousal.
In his book Musicophilia, Dr. Oliver Sacks describes an experience where he heard a piece of music while on a subway journey, and it gave him goosebumps. He said, "I felt as though I were floating out of my body - or rather being lifted up by it; for the sensation had its counterpart in an upward movement through my body."
Musical frisson is often called a “skin orgasm” and it's for a good reason. Frisson starts slow and builds gradually as you get closer to the big finale. The first part of the ride is called "arousal," which is what happens when your body gets into a state where it can start processing sound information. The tension builds up and then something unexpected happens in the music —like an unforeseen bass drop or some other kind of change in tempo or rhythm. You get the chills and the next part of the ride is all about "experiencing pleasure," which is what happens when you realize that something unexpected has happened and it feels good! Your brain releases dopamine and sends pleasure signals to the rest of the body. It feels like waves of pleasure running all over your skin.
A playlist to give you chills
Are you ready to experience some frisson? Here's a playlist with 750+ songs that are scientifically verified to give you chills.
The playlist is based on the study of Remi de Fleurian and Marcus Pearce, two researchers who explored the topic of music chills. For their supplement material, they compiled a collection of songs reported to elicit goosebumps. We put these tracks into a playlist and shared it on all music platforms using FreeYourMusic Smart Links. It's a marketing tool for music curators, artists, and record labels to share music across all streaming platforms.
You can listen to the “Frisson” playlist on the embed player below or open and follow the playlist on the music app of your choice.
Let us know in the comments if these songs gave you chills!