That feeling you get from a particularly powerful piece of music has a few names, like chills or goose bumps, but Psyche Loui, a psychologist at Wesleyan University who studies the phenomenon, has a particularly descriptive way of phrasing it: “skin orgasms.” In a recent piece for the BBC, science writer David Robson covers the potential psychological and physiological explanations for the physical thrill you sometimes get from music, and it is fascinating.
Loui isn’t the first to describe the feeling in sexual terms. In one 1991 study of both musicians and non-musicians, half of the participants reported feeling “trembling, flushing and sweating and sexual arousal” when listening to certain pieces, and the North Indian and Pakistani Sufis, Robson notes, “have long discussed an erotic dimension to deep music listening.”
The sensation seems to be triggered by songs that slightly diverge from our expectations — a swift key change, a sudden switch from soft to loud, or a note that clashes with the tune’s melody. And this may point to an explanation for the strong reaction people sometimes have to music containing these elements.
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. (Along similar lines, when pharmacologist Avram Goldestein at Stanford University blocked the brain’s opiate signaling – a system that controls reward and addiction – he found that it significantly reduced volunteers’ ability to feel skin orgasms.)
Besides the fun of the feeling, there could be some social benefits to hearing chill-inducing music. Research published last fall, for example, found that when researchers played music that gave their study volunteers goose bumps, the participants were more likely to behave altruistically toward each other in a subsequent task. “Maybe it is the rush of endorphins from a skin orgasm that helps promote the communal goodwill,” Robson notes. Whatever the case, it’s a cool feeling, and you can try summoning it up for yourself with this YouTube playlist Robson has very nicely put together for you.