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Why Music Gives Us the Chills

By Corey Binns

For a willing music audience, the art of drawing emotion from notes is classic.

Composers play with subtle, intricate changes and rates of change to try and elicit emotion. In recent studies, scientists found that people already familiar with the music are more likely to catch a chill at key moments:

  • When a symphony turns from loud to quiet
  • Upon entry of a solo voice or instrument
  • When two singers have contrasting voices

People covered in goose bumps also tend to be driven more by rewards, and less inclined to be thrill- and adventure-seekers, according to research conducted at the Institute for Music Physiology and Musicians’ Medicine in Hanover, Germany.

Our results suggest that chills depend very much on our ability to interpret the music," said Oliver Grewe, a biologist and musicologist at the institute. "Music is a recreative activity. Even if it is relaxing to listen to, the listener has to recreate its meaning, the feelings it expresses. It is the listener who gives life to the emotions in music."

The researchers' latest findings are currently being reviewed for journal publication, while their previous research has been published in the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences.

Music can do more than just give you goose bumps. A melody can:

  • Ease labor pain
  • Reduce the need for sedation during surgery
  • Evoke strong memories
  • Lessen depression

Listening to your favorite hits can shift your breathing pattern and speed up your heart rate.

Shivers down the spine even show up in brain scans, according to research at McGill University. As chills grow in intensity, bloodflow increases between areas of the brain associated with euphoria-inducing vices like food, sex, and drugs.

In the near future, the German research team plans to further study the central nervous system's reactions to music that gives fans the chills.

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