This Is Why You Get Chills While Listening to Your Favorite Song

drawing of woman sitting in inner tube listening to music

Verywell / Bailey Mariner


Key Takeaways

  • Research suggests at least 55% of people experience pleasurable chills while listening to music they enjoy.
  • A recent study further examined this phenomenon to show how music activates the brain's pleasure and reward centers, which raises the question of music's role in human evolution.
  • With these primal properties in mind, listening to music can be considered an act of self-care that boosts the immune system and helps alleviate anxiety and depression.

You've got your headphones on, lost in a song, when a particularly powerful chorus or instrumental break sends tingling ripples down your arms and legs. Or maybe the hair on the back of your neck stands on end. If you're familiar with some version of this feeling, you join the 55% to 90% of humans that experience the physical sensation of musical chills.

It's a phenomenon that can occur during live or recorded music, new or known, and it's been well documented over the years. But one question persists: Why does it happen?

Researchers have set out to find the answer, and a recent study published in Frontiers in Neuroscience focused on mapping out the brain's electrical activity during musical chills sheds further light on how music can activate the brain's pleasure and reward centers.

The Study

Neuroscientists based in France used high-density electroencephalography (HD-EEG) to illustrate patterns of cerebral activity when people are subjected to pleasurable musical chills. Eighteen volunteers, 11 women and seven men, participated. All reported experiencing chills during enjoyable music prior to the study.

Utilizing HD-EEG, electrodes were placed on a large area of participants' scalps to scan and measure electrical activity in the brain. Once hooked up, each participant listened to five chill-inducing musical excerpts they had provided, as well as three additional neutral excerpts selected by researchers, and were asked to report on their emotional pleasure.

They did this by continuously pressing one of four buttons corresponding with the intensity of the experience (neutral, low pleasure, high pleasure, chills). A "chill event" was defined as high emotional pleasure in combination with a physical sensation of goosebumps, tingling sensations, hair standing on end, or shivers down the spine.

Thibault Chabin, Lead Researcher

Old brain circuits essential for survival and implicated in motivated behaviors—such as sex, food, money—are involved, too, in musical pleasure processing.

— Thibault Chabin, Lead Researcher

The scans revealed the presence of theta activity, which is associated with memory, reward anticipation, and attention. These abilities are all key to musical emotional processing. These results coincide with previous MRI and PET scan research and open a new door for understanding our ancestral relationship with music.

Neuroscience and Evolution

The findings of this study indicate our enjoyment of music might have once served an evolutionary purpose.

"Old brain circuits essential for survival and implicated in motivated behaviors—such as sex, food, money—are involved, too, in musical pleasure processing," says lead study researcher Thibault Chabin. "So, we know how, now we need to understand why music is pleasurable and rewarding."

Experts have long argued whether music has a biological function. While some consider music a byproduct of human existence, others theorize it gave our species a leg up.

Consider the fact that music is known to prompt the release of oxytocin, the "cuddle hormone" that promotes bonding, in the brain. From an evolutionary perspective, the advent of music could have increased interdependence and social cohesion. Bonded groups that worked together were more likely to survive.

The oldest-known musical instruments in the world were discovered inside a German cave: a set of 43,000-year-old flutes made from bird bone and mammoth ivory. The instruments are thought to have been the first to be used in recreation and ritual.

"In a cave, the flute would’ve sounded divine, and that would’ve allowed for a sense of bonding that would’ve reinforced survival," says professor of music therapy at Berklee College of Music, Kathleen Howland, PhD. "The advent of the flute would have made for a remarkable shift in the community of these Homo sapiens."

Kathleen Howland, PhD

The advent of the flute would have made for a remarkable shift in the community of these Homo sapiens.

— Kathleen Howland, PhD

Historically, music has been used as a tool to maintain this social cohesion as well. As a means of identification, music often helps differentiate between in-group and out-group—think about today's national anthems, protest chants, or the sense of camaraderie induced by singing along at a live concert.

Anthropologists have suggested that these modern iterations of music might have evolved from "coordinated territorial defense signals," similar to packs of wolves howling at the moon. Early humans made music together to further bond and promote survival.

Music For Mental Health

The primal properties of music can be especially useful to us today, even beyond the production of feel-good hormones. Thinking back to the first flutes, music has played a role in calming the human mind since its beginnings.

"I could envision babies being born that were quieted with the music," Howland says. "I feel instinctively that they had already figured out singing to the babies, because it would've preserved precious calories for their survival when they were not in distress."

As a music therapist, Howland is acutely aware of the ways in which certain types of music can trigger the brain's relaxation response and help to alleviate anxiety and depression. Furthermore, studies have shown music can potentially boost the immune system and aid in treating conditions like Alzheimer's.

"There are wonderful ways to get to that sweet spot—meditation, yoga, tai chi—but music has a sense of immediacy and familiarity that is utilized intuitively and ubiquitously so that we in music therapy bring that intentionality to a person in pain or anxiety in the hospital," Howland says.

As we navigate stressful, uncertain times, music can be a powerful tool used both independently and with others. Sharing the experience of listening to a favorite song with a friend, incorporating dance and movement, and even intertwining visual arts interpretation like drawing or painting can amplify music's beneficial mental effects.

“If you're in a place of peaked stress like we are now, in three to five minutes of a piece of music (you can) get to a place where time seems to warp, you get lost in imagery," Howland says. "It’s an easily accessible resource, and it’s a beautiful one to share."

What the Future Holds

This study was the first of its kind to use high-density EEG to monitor cerebral activity during music listening sessions. Researchers like Chabin hope to advance the understanding of musical pleasure, and this study is just the beginning. Now that the foundation has successfully been laid to illustrate the brain activity associated with musical pleasure, the next phase of research can be conducted outside the lab with the help of EEG.

"This research in laboratory conditions was a first step before other experimentations in natural settings during concerts, in which we want to measure how musical emotions are transmitted between people," Chabin says.

With wireless mobile EEG systems, the cerebral activity of individual participants can be observed simultaneously within a group setting. A better understanding of the emotional synchronization of groups will further piece together the puzzle of music's role in our lives.

“We will finally unlock the magic of the biology behind it," Howland says. "We’re chipping away further and further at it. It’s beautiful.”

What This Means For You

While it's unclear whether our ancestral connection to music is linked to our survival as a species, it does have a positive effect on our brains. In stressful times, listening to music is an easily accessible resource for promoting mental health.

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