When Psyche Loui first heard Rachmaninov’s Piano Concert No. 2 on the radio as a college student, she still remembers the chill that went down her spine, the fluttering in her stomach and the racing heart. Now an assistant professor of psychology and neuroscience and behavior at Wesleyan, Loui studies this phenomenon–which she refers to as “frissons” or “skin orgasms”–in her lab. She recently co-authored a paper with Luke Harrison ’14 in Frontiers in Psychology reviewing the evidence and theories in this area, and spoke to the BBC about their findings.
Loui, also an accomplished pianist and violinist, points out that the sensations associated with music can be as varied as trembling, flushing and sweating, and sexual arousal. People can often pick out particular measures in a song that trigger such sensations, allowing researchers to pinpoint specific features that are most likely to trigger the sensations in listeners.
Sudden changes in harmony, dynamic leaps (from soft to loud), and melodic appoggiaturas (dissonant notes that clash with the main melody, like you’ll find in Adele’s Someone Like You) seem to be particularly powerful. “Musical frisson elicit a physiological change that’s locked to a particular point in the music,” says Loui.
Researchers have been able to use fMRI scans to map out the regions of the brain that respond to music, and chart the mechanisms that correspond to this phenomenon.
One major component seems to be the way the brain monitors our expectations, says Loui. From the moment we are born (and possibly before), we begin to learn certain rules that characterise the way songs are composed. If a song follows the conventions too closely, it is bland and fails to capture our attention; if it breaks the patterns too much, it sounds like noise. But when composers straddle the boundary between the familiar and unfamiliar, playing with your expectations using unpredictable flourishes (like appoggiaturas or sweeping harmonic changes), they hit a sweet spot that pleasantly teases the brain, and this may produce a frisson.
For instance, violated expectations seem to startle (albeit gently) the automatic nervous system, in its most primitive region, the brain stem – producing the racing heart, the breathlessness, the flush that can signal the onset of a frisson. What’s more, the anticipation, violation, and resolution of our expectations triggers the release of dopamine in two key regions – the caudate and the nucleus accumbens, shortly before and just after the frisson. You see a similar response when people take drugs or have sex, which may explain why we find shiver-inducing songs so addictive, says Loui.