Breakthrough in understanding the chills and thrills of musical rapture
How certain pieces of music send tingles up the spine has stumped researchers for centuries, but a recent brain scan study may have provided some clues
By Ian Sample Science editor
How does music evoke goosebumps and spine tingles? Photograph: Hiroyuki Ito/Getty Images
The skin comes out in goosebumps and tingles run up the spine. But how particular pieces of music can induce such rapturous effects in people has stumped researchers for centuries.
With the passing of time comes new technology though, and suitably equipped with modern brain scanning equipment, scientists may now have made some headway.
In the latest effort to understand “the chills”, researchers in the US put out a call for music fans who either consistently experienced euphoric sensations on hearing certain tracks, or who hardly ever felt them at all.
“It stemmed from a deep interest in intense, profound emotional responses, in particular those that come from music,” said Matthew Sachs, a graduate student at the University of Southern California who conducted the experiments at Harvard University. “I’ve always been fascinated by how a collection of tones changing over time has the ability to evoke these very strong sensations.”
More than 200 people responded to the call and filled out online personality questionnaires. From these, Sachs and others at Harvard and Wesleyan University in Connecticut selected 10 to form a “chill group” and another 10 to form a “no chill” group.
Before having their brains scanned, the 20 volunteers went into the lab with playlists of music they found most pleasurable. The tracks ranged from the Liebestod from Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde and Coldplay’s Strawberry Swing to Bag Raiders’ Shooting Stars and Blue Devils Drum Corps’s Constantly Risking Absurdity.