Did you know that when a song gives you the chills the official name for it is “frisson” (and the technical name for goosebumps is ‘piloerection’ or ‘skin orgasm’ – stop sniggering at the back)? There was a fascinating article about musical chills on Buzzfeed recently which looked at The Daddy of goosebumps: ASMR.
That probably means nothing to you. Let me explain. It stands for “Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response”. It’s basically goosebumps squared. People who have it don’t just get the hairs on their arms standing up or a tingle in their spine – it floods their whole body. Music isn’t the only thing that sets it off. It’s a mixed list of nail-tapping, scratching, colouring in pictures, lava lamps and whispering (as this video illustrates).
You’re lucky if you experience frisson when listening to music; it doesn’t affect everyone. Simply speaking, dopamine (the happy chemical) caused by an emotional reaction leads to the physiological response. Scientists have suggested that this might be one of the reason people value the experience of listening to music so much.
Here’s a breakdown of the most interesting points in the article.
- Musical chills are rare: “The literature in music cognition tends to claim that between 1/3 and 1/2 of people experience chills in response to music,” says academic Lisa Margulis.
- 90 per cent of professional musicians get them, apparently.
- Women are more likely to get frisson than men.
- “Large shifts in tempo or volume and sudden entrance or exit of vocals or instruments seem to be the big winners in eliciting chills” and songs that are “high energy: really loud, or involving lots of instruments playing all at once,” were cited as reasons for the effects by researchers.
- The evolutionary reasons are unclear but it could have something to do with a bonding experience.
- The effects of ASMR (as opposed to frisson) are quite something: “You want to melt in your chair and purr like a cat. This can last for quite a long time, as long as the triggers last.” It can even make someone fall asleep.
The moments that give me the chills are often caused by a vocal, an unexpected key change or a harmonic resolution. My top three? The very first guitar chords of the Rolling Stones’ ‘Gimme Shelter’ sets me off and the tingles return at 3:00 when Merry Clayton’s voice cracks. Even thinking about it gives me a chill. The point Jeff Buckley’s falsetto kicks in with full force in his version of ‘Dido’s Lament’ at 2.35 is another. I could name countless Radiohead moments but I think the most effective for me is the crashing chords coming in at 2:00 in ‘You And Whose Army?’ followed by the howling vocals.
I asked around the NME office and the varied response proves how wonderfully mysterious this phenomenon is. The first 10 seconds of ‘Pioneer To The Falls’ by Interpol, the monumental climax in Patti Smith’s ‘Pissing In A River’ where she sings “What about it? Should I pursue a path so twisted?”, the kick drum in Robyn’s ‘With Every Heartbeat’ after the violin breakdown, and the first few seconds of Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Go Your Own Way’ were suggested.
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Which moments in songs give you the tingles? Not just a track as a whole, the exact moment you get the piloerection (sorry). Please let me know below. We want to find out if any moments come up multiple times – perhaps there’s an Ultimate Goosebumps Moment. We’ll be making a playlist of the best suggestions. At the moment the artists who have cropped up the most on my Twitter feed have been Cat Power, Radiohead and Alt-J.