What causes Musical Chills in Humans?

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  • Experiencing chills while listening to music is a common phenomenon experienced by people around the world
  • Neuroscientists in France conducted EEG scans of 18 participants as they listened to their favorite chill-inducing pieces of music 
  • Results showed that musical chills triggered the brain’s reward system in the patients.

Music has the power to alter our emotions. Certain parts of a song can elicit joy in us, make the hair on our arms rise up, and even cause us to experience a ‘chill’ down our spine. For long scientists have wondered about the effects of music on human emotions. In a study published in the journal Frontiers in Neuroscience, researchers investigated the patterns of brain activity as patients experienced these musical chills. 

Thibault Chabin and his team of neuroscientists recruited 18 French participants for their study. All 18 participants frequently experienced musical chills while listening to their favorite pieces of music. 

EEG Reveal Brain Activity During Musical Chills

The participants listened to 15 minutes of 90 s pieces of their favorite music while undergoing high-density electroencephalography (EEG). They also filled out a questionnaire indicating when they experienced the chill during the music and, rated the level of chill experienced. 

Participants of our study were able to precisely indicate “chill-producing” moments in the songs, but most musical chills occurred in many parts of the extracts and not only in the predicted moments

Thibault Chabin, study author

During these chill-inducing moments, scientists noted increased electrical activity in multiple regions of the brain. These included the orbitofrontal cortex, the supplementary motor area, and the right temporal lobe. These regions are generally involved in activating the brain’s reward and pleasure system along with releasing the neurotransmitter, dopamine.

Furthermore, researchers identified two specific patterns of the chills: decreased theta waves activity in the right central and right temporal region. They suggest that this could reflect the anticipation of the music note and increased musical appreciation respectively. 

The Power of Music

What is most intriguing is that music seems to have no biological benefit to us. However, the implication of dopamine and of the reward system in processing of musical pleasure suggests an ancestral function for music.

Thibault Chabin, study author

The findings of the study highlight the role of EEG in investigating why music is rewarding for humans. Furthermore, unlike other neuroimaging techniques such as MRI or PET Scans, the EEG can be easily transported to non-lab settings. 

Reference:

Chabin, Thibault, et al. “Cortical Patterns of Pleasurable Musical Chills Revealed by High-Density EEG.” Frontiers in Neuroscience, vol. 14, 2020, doi:10.3389/fnins.2020.565815. 

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