How long does it take for your hairs to stand on end when listening to This Woman’s Work by Kate Bush? Call us sentimental, but for IFLScience the first “aha, wooh-ooh-ooh” on the part of Bush is enough to trigger piloerection: an involuntary contraction of small muscles surrounding follicles causing hairs to stand on end (whatever else did you think we meant?).
Not only is the influence of music on our involuntary sympathetic nervous system strangely pleasurable, but now scientists believe they have harnessed the power of unexpected composition in a playlist of 715 “Songs To Give You Chills”. The research was covered by Quartz who put together the Spotify playlist using music from the study which was whittled down to the 715 songs with traits most likely to give you chills.
The involuntary response to music that moves us is also sometimes called frisson from the French which the Cambridge Dictionary defines as: “a sudden feeling of excitement or fear, especially when you think that something is about to happen.” The chills, or piloerection, associated with frisson often feel nice, which is why the psychophysiological response is also sometimes called "skin orgasms" or “pleasurable gooseflesh”, though we’d advise against using the latter unless you want to end up on some kind of register.
When we listen to music, our innate sense of rhythm and melody means we have an expectation of what a song’s most likely next step would be, and when this is defied through a change in pitch or rhythm the violation of expectation elicits frisson. One theory for this involuntary response to surprising music is that it ties in with our drive to understand and explore our environment.
This curiosity once improved our chances of survival as in pursuit of knowledge we probably tracked down food and shelter along the way, and the residual desire to know what to expect may be why music that violates our expectations gives us the chills. Emotional arousal has also been touted as a trigger, with research having found that the rewarding aspects of listening to music are related to the way it makes you feel, but are you more likely to get a piloerection while listening to a happy song or a sad one?
A song’s emotional tone is known as valence, and its relationship with chills was the focus of a paper from PhD candidate Rémi de Fleurian and Senior Lecturer Dr Marcus Pearce from the music cognition lab at Queen Mary University of London. In the search of the signatures of songs that elicit a response, they analyzed 988 tracks that had been previously reported to bring on the piloerections.
You can put your sympathetic nervous system to the test by listening to the above playlist which includes the songs found to have the traits most associated with frisson and features the aforementioned Bush (though not the track that’s recently got Stranger Things fans in a frenzy).
The computational analysis compared frisson songs with another popular track by the same artist to see how they differed. The comparison revealed that sadder, slower and more sophisticated music was more likely to bring on chills, as well as the violation of musical expectation which was the most important stimulus-driven predictor of piloerection.
“We found convincing evidence for an effect of musical expectation on chills,” said Fleurian to IFLScience. “This effect had been hypothesized for more than 30 years, but we were finally able to set up a study to formally investigate the question.”
Their investigations also further supported previous suggestions that chills are the combination of several psychophysiological responses to a variety of triggers. That is, they can occur for many reasons and in response to completely different stimuli, be that music, art or even social interactions.
So, what gets your hairs on end?
[H/T: Big Think]