I am sure many of us know the feeling of that tingling chill down our spines when listening to certain music.

I experienced this most when my younger brother played an emotional piano piece for a talent show (brought me to tears).

  • What causes that?
  • Is music the only stimulus to elicit that spine-tingling?
  • And in terms of evolution, why?

2 Answers 2


It is called a frisson, and actually, there has been a study about it, available here. The frisson is kind of the same you get from cold weather, fear, or... well, other things not suitable to discuss if not knowing how old people reading this might be.

Actually, they found that this works best if you include familiarity. In their case, asking study participants to bring their favourite emotional music, in you case hearing it played by your brother.

How this evolutionary came by is unclear. But as it resembles the shivers you would call "a tingling sense of danger" it might stem from a reaction to uncertainty or at least unclear danger. In this case, it is meant to enable you to concentrate on whatever is coming, and maybe (but that's one of my own theories) this is how it came to connect to pleasant emotions as well: You want to be able to concentrate, delve into the emotion. This could explain, why it works best with familiar pieces: you already know that you want to listen closely.

  • $\begingroup$ frisson! - will be saying that more often now, cheers for the insights @skymninge $\endgroup$ Dec 5, 2013 at 17:39

Music and Emotions

The most difficult problem in answering the question of how music creates emotions is likely to be the fact that assignments of musical elements and emotions can never be defined clearly. The solution of this problem is the Theory of Musical Equilibration. It says that music can't convey any emotion at all, but merely volitional processes, the music listener identifies with. Then in the process of identifying the volitional processes are colored with emotions. The same happens when we watch an exciting film and identify with the volitional processes of our favourite figures. Here, too, just the process of identification generates emotions.

An example: If you perceive a major chord, you normally identify with the will "Yes, I want to...". The experience of listening to a minor chord can be compared to the message conveyed when someone says, "No more." If someone were to say these words slowly and quietly, they would create the impression of being sad, whereas if they were to scream it quickly and loudly, they would be come across as furious. This distinction also applies for the emotional character of a minor chord: if a minor harmony is repeated faster and at greater volume, its sad nature appears to have suddenly turned into fury.

Because this detour of emotions via volitional processes was not detected, also all music psychological and neurological experiments, to answer the question of the origin of the emotions in the music, failed.

But how music can convey volitional processes? These volitional processes have something to do with the phenomena which early music theorists called "lead", "leading tone" or "striving effects". If we reverse this musical phenomena in imagination into its opposite (not the sound wants to change - but the listener identifies with a will not to change the sound) we have found the contents of will, the music listener identifies with. In practice, everything becomes a bit more complicated, so that even more sophisticated volitional processes can be represented musically.

Further information is available via the free download of my e-book "Music and Emotion - Research on the Theory of Musical Equilibration"

or on the online journal EUNOMIOS.


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