Dr Vicky Williamson is a lecturer in Music Psychology at the University of Sheffield.
Anyone who claims to know exactly why you and I love listening music is lying. It helps get through daily life sure, but how and why does it make us feel better? Humans have been listening to music for as long as we have been writing. The oldest examples of musical instruments are in excess of 40,000 years old, which gives us a problem – the evidence for how we came to love music is lost in time.
Faced with this dilemma scientists attack the puzzle from the other direction; they search the minds of modern humans for clues as to why we love music. One of the most recent clues came from a brain study of probably the most intense physical and emotional musical experience that exists – the chill.
This phenomenon goes by many names including goosebumps, thrills, shivers, frisson and even ‘skin orgasms’. Not everyone has experienced a musical chill but if you have had one then you will recognise the description; the hairs on the back of your neck and arms may stand to attention and a wave of nerves may whisk its way up your spine causing your head and/or torso to tick/convulse.
The musical chill response is involuntary. You can’t experience it in the absence of the trigger music and most people claim it is reliable, strong and impossible to control.
Why does certain music give us chills? And what does this tell us about why we love music?
Valarie Salimpoor and her colleagues from McGill (Canada) set out to examine real time brain responses of people as they were experiencing musical chills. The first thing that they discovered is that there is probably no magic formula for a musical chill, other than the fact that they often coincide with a sudden change in the music, such as the entry of a singer or a flip in harmony. Each volunteer was asked to bring in their own ‘chill music’ and the selection included jazz, classical, techno, rock and popular music, including Led Zeppelin, Tiesto and Rodriguez.
The researchers found activation in an ancient, centrally based brain system called the dopaminergic reward pathway; structures associated with pathway, such as the striatum and nucleus accumbens, were flushed with the brain-pleasing neurotransmitter ‘dopamine’ just before and during musical chills. This reward brain response is associated with motivation and addiction.
We typically experience this type of brain response to biologically rewarding stimuli; things that help us survive, like sex and high fat foods. Modern music does not really help us survive so it is effectively piggy-backing on this reward brain system. This system can also get hijacked by chemicals that modify mood. On the face of it therefore, this part of your brain reacts to sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll.
Thanks to this study we know that the music that gives us goosebumps, the ultimate natural music high, does so because it stimulates a very old brain reward system that is designed to promote survival but that in the modern world has trouble telling the difference between procreation, cocaine and music.
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This science gets us a bit further towards understanding the mechanisms behind why the music we love gives us goosebumps. Then of course you have to ask yourself, why music, when it has no real survival value? The search for an answer to why we love music continues…