There is a wonderful variety of experiences that any one person can have with music. Perhaps you have been compelled to head bang to Metallica’s ‘Master of Puppets’, or to show off your flawless funk to Stevie Wonder’s ‘Superstition’. Or, if you’re like me, you have at one point played (perfectly) the ‘air piano’ whilst listening to Beethoven’s ‘Moonlight Sonata’, beaten your better half in a singing battle of Dolly Parton’s ‘Nine to Five’, or busted out your greatest impression of Bruce Springsteen in a likely woeful rendition of ‘Thunder Road’ at the local pub. What these musical examples have in common, is that we often feel something or possibly experience emotions, one of the major motivations for listening and engaging with different types of music. As listeners, we are able to use music to achieve desired emotional states such as joy, relaxation and excitement; for example, we may choose a piece of music to help us move on from a stressful day of work, or instead listen to music that helps to energise, possibly before or during some exercise. In addition to these uses, we may also listen to music that helps to release and explore repressed or negative emotions, such as sadness, anger or feelings of stress; this cathartic effect may be involved in the pleasure some people experience when listening to sad music (see the Music and Emotion page on the Music and Science Lab website).
Of all the emotional experiences possible whilst listening to music, one that particularly stands out is ‘chills’ (sometimes called thrills, or frisson), which describes an emotional response coupled with one or all of shivers, gooseflesh or tingling sensations. Given the thermoregulatory functions of physiological activity such as shivers and gooseflesh (to warm us up or cool us down), it is quite interesting to see an emotional response to music involves these changes, and with roughly 50% of the population having had this experience at some point in their lives. My current research within the Music and Science Lab at Durham University is exploring musical chills in detail, addressing aspects such as what the experience is actually like from the perspective of music listeners, in terms of the subjective feelings during chills, in what situations they might occur, and with what kinds of music. In addition, the research aims to assess whether there are certain ways we process music during listening that are significant in chills; for example, are chills a response to a violation of our expectations of what would come next in a piece music? Are they closely related to the way in which music can remind us and even transport us to past events that are personally valuable? What immediately stood out as I reacquainted myself with the existing research on musical chills over the past 30 years or so (Goldstein, 1980; Grewe et al., 2007; Panksepp, 1995), is that we are still no closer to having an idea of what pieces of music might actually elicit chills across different listeners. There is data suggesting that certain musical features such as sudden dynamic changes (Sloboda, 1991) or the entrance of new instruments or voices (Grewe et al., 2007) might be linked to chills, but we do not yet have a substantial playlist or set of pieces that can elicit chills across different listeners; research either uses the same piece of music to target chills from a single older study, or asks participants to bring in their own personal chills pieces, without documenting transparently what music was involved.
Does the music from artists/composers/bands such as Adele, Bruce Springsteen, Radiohead and Mozart elicit chills more often than other music?
In a recent survey on the chills experience, I used the opportunity to ask each person for up to three pieces of music in which they experienced chills, resulting in 419 pieces. In what I am precariously labelling the ‘chills song database’, the music linked to chills widely varies in genre and style. However, it was very interesting to see that there were some pieces of music mentioned by multiple people, suggesting that certain music may be special in the way that they are likely to elicit chills in listeners; additionally, there are several composers, bands or artists reported more frequently than others, which could indicate that certain musicians and composers are writing music that elicits chills more often in listeners. From here, it might be useful, for example, to analyse these pieces of music to understand what features they might have in common, possibly in the context of psychological mechanisms of music and emotion (Juslin, 2013); for example, do these pieces of music contain strong and pronounced rhythms? Are there consistent instruments and timbres across pieces that are expressive of human emotion?
This preliminary database will only grow more useful with a larger amount of ‘chills pieces’, and eventually this information can be released, for the leisure of listeners, and for the use of further research in a specific field of music and emotion that should be developing in a more encouraging fashion. Below, I have included eight of the most mentioned pieces of music from the chills survey (in no particular order), along with Spotify/YouTube links should you feel the impulse (like I did!) to listen to any or all of them:
‘Canon in D Major’ by Johann Pachelbel
‘B Minor Mass’ by J.S. Bach
‘Adagio for Strings’ by Samuel Barber
‘Creep’ by Brian Justin Crum (Radiohead cover)
‘Hello’ by Adele
‘Angel’ by Sarah McLachlan
‘Hallelujah’, both the Leonard Cohen and Jeff Buckley versions
‘Rhapsody in Blue’ by George Gershwin
At the level of artist/band/composer, the following are often mentioned by music listeners in the experience of musical chills, again in no particular order:
Sigur Ros https://open.spotify.com/artist/6UUrUCIZtQeOf8tC0WuzRy
Steven Wilson https://open.spotify.com/artist/4X42BfuhWCAZ2swiVze9O0
J.S. Bach https://open.spotify.com/artist/5aIqB5nVVvmFsvSdExz408
Bruce Springsteen https://open.spotify.com/artist/3eqjTLE0HfPfh78zjh6TqT
David Bowie https://open.spotify.com/artist/0oSGxfWSnnOXhD2fKuz2Gy
Do any of these pieces of music give you chills? What about your own experiences with chills? Do you have a piece of music that absolutely MUST be added to this growing list of chills music? You can contribute to the current database of chills music easily, simply send your suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org!
As the database grows in size, another blog will be published on the Music and Science Lab website with an extensive playlist of chills music for anybody to explore and enjoy, so be sure to keep a look out, or stay updated via Twitter or Facebook.
If you are particularly interested in this current research on musically-induced chills, you can get involved and contribute even further by participating in a listening experiment taking place at Durham University in the months of March and April; this will involve listening to different pieces of music collected in the survey, whilst continuously rating your experience and having skin conductance measurements taken (non-intrusive and not painful!). If you would like to participate in the experiment, you can book your place and time slot HERE.