The Science of Aesthetic Chills

The Science of Aesthetic Chills

Shail Bhatt delves into the bodily experience of listening to music by giving an insight into aesthetic chills.

Whenever I listen to Metallica’s Master of Puppets, it is always an extraordinary journey. The heavy electric guitar, the mind-blowing cymbal work, and James Hetfield’s “Master! Master!” are certainly impressive. But when the voices die down, the absolutely beautiful guitar solo transports me to a different universe, and sends shivers down my spine. I can feel the goose-bumps and a tingling sensation run through my body as I devour Kirk Hammett’s soul-stirring guitar solo. But this wasn’t an isolated incident: when the choir enters in Dark Fantasy by Kanye West, or that Michael Jackson tribute during We Are the World for Haiti are all sweet spots for getting chills through my body. How does our body react in a particular way to music? How do harmonies and melodies have the capability to send shivers down our spines?

Known as skin orgasms, frission, or aesthetic chills, the shivers we get are attributed to a response our body produces to the musical piece we hear or the film we view. This response causes chills, goose-bumps and often pupil dilation. Sometimes, these effects are coupled with feelings of a heavy chest, quivering, involuntary smiling or jaw-clenching, and trembling. These shivers generally last for 10 seconds and are almost likes waves of pleasure. The really intriguing part about these shivers is that there are specific moments in a musical piece where these chills can occur: unexpected changes in melody, sudden changes in the dynamics of the piece, or an unexpected new voice or instrument, like the Kirk Hammett solo, are the most common reasons for these skin orgasms.

The reason for these shivers may be evolutionary. We feel these aesthetic chills when something pleasantly unexpected occurs. Usually, changes in the weather or the foreshadowing of a threat cause goose-bumps and chills, by mediating the release of adrenaline. However, strong emotional reactions to other incidents like a song can also cause a similar response. It’s interesting to note that the intensity of the aesthetic chills and the tingling sensations have a positive correlation with the amount of activity in the part of the brain that controls reward and pleasure. A flood of dopamine, a neurotransmitter responsible for the feelings of pleasure and motivation, causes emotional arousal and skin conductance, and hence frission.

There are, of course, certain clarifications with aesthetic chills. Only around two-thirds of all people feel frission, and a study found out that those that are able to experience music chills have a higher volume of nerve fibres that makes their emotional processing stronger. It turns out that personality is a huge factor in determining whether or not one can experience shivers down their spine. Those who are more ‘open to experience’, reflect frequently on their feelings, and have an active imagination, are more likely to experience frission. A large survey in 1995 found that frission stems most often from a personal connection one has with the music or artwork. Furthermore, sad music and melancholic songs are bigger triggers for sending shivers down our spines. Scientists say that this stems from our ancestors, and that these chills were distress responses when they were separated from their families.

All of us perceive art subjectively, and so the Master of Puppets solo for me might not cause chills for you. Either way, it’s awesome how we are able to process beauty, and how any form of art is able to touch us in a unique and individual way.

Check out this Reddit thread where users share their chill-inducing songs and videos!