You are listening to your favourite song when something happens.
Maybe you feel slightly cold, a shiver runs down your spine or you get goosebumps.
Commonly, we call them “the chills” but the technical term is “frisson”, a French word which means “aesthetic chills”, or chills derived from art.
It doesn’t have to be music. It could be a scene in a movie or TV show. Or a painting or a particular YouTube video. And yes, like almost everything, there is a subreddit for it.
One influential study showed that around half the population experiences frisson. But why?
As is the case with most (all?) things related to our bodies, it has to do with evolution. The important thing to note here is that goosebumps are often the physiological outcome of chills. Goosebumps are what’s known as a “vestigial response” – a response that has lost its original function.
Back in the day, we were ape-like. We were completely covered in hair, so when we got scared we’d make all our hair stand on end so that we’d appear bigger. You’ve probably seen cats do something similar.
In the case of music, our chills are a biological reaction to something that’s akin to fear – surprise.
Scientists did a study in which they played pieces of music to people and looked at what causes frisson.
The study found that unexpected changes in pitch, harmony, volume or the entrance of a particular soloist were some of the main triggers. When we hear these things, we are primed to respond and our natural defences kick in. But at the same time, we know we are safe, that this is just a song, and thus the resulting feeling is pleasurable.
It’s like your body is saying “Oh no, hey what’s going on? OK, wait it’s just a song, we cool,” in a very short space of time.
It’s the same reason you might enjoy roller coasters or haunted houses. The correlation could be a strong one too since other research has shown that people who are more open to unpredictable experiences are more likely to get the chills from art.
Like at least half of you, I experience frisson, so here’s an example of something that does it for me – the solo in Guns n’ Roses’ “Sweet Child O’ Mine”.
This solo can give me the chills twice. The first is at 2:34 when Slash begins the first part of the solo with a high bending note. Importantly, the song also changes key at this point (from D flat major to Eb minor).
The second chill I get is at 3:02 where Slash begins his crescendo into the second part of the solo. This is accompanied by a rise in the speed and attack of his playing and the introduction of a new timbre, through the use of the wah-wah pedal.
It probably helps that I grew up listening to Gunners and consider myself a huge fan. The memories I have attached to the music no doubt help, but Slash’s playing does exhibit changes of key, volume and pitch which scientists have identified as frisson triggers.
Going forward, the scientists who are studying frisson want to use it to develop more sophisticated forms of music therapy for the treatment of depressive disorders.
In the meantime, we can keep using classic belters like “Sweet Child” to self-medicate.