What Musical 'Chills' Can Tell Us About Emotional Response to Music

Have you ever gotten goose bumps all over your body while listening to music? This is referred to as ‘the chills.’ There has been some research on this, highlighting the arousal of the primitive, subcortical structures in the brain, and how they are affected by music. This is one of the few emotion-specific predictions that has been tested and is clearly observable. As stated earlier, opiate receptors in subcortical regions of the brain seem to be involved in emotional responses to music. It was theorized that these emotional responses included the chills we often get while listening to emotionally powerful or moving music. Data provided by Goldstein in 1980 demonstrated that the use of opiate receptor antagonists such as naloxone (an opioid neurotransmitter antagonist typically used to treat heroin overdoses) and naltrexone diminished the emotional appreciation of music, at least in the sense that there was a significant reduction in the chills subjects experienced while listening to emotionally powerful music. These same opiate receptors, particularly noticeable around the periaqueductal gray, play a role in the rewards system of the brain. This would imply that the opiate receptors in subcortical regions of the brain play a role in the emotional reactions to music, and their activation may play an important role in the emotional response to music. This could at least partially controlled by endogenous opioids (opioids that are naturally produced by the body), possibly induced by a sudden rush of endorphins.

These opiate receptors in places like the inferior colliculi and the periaqueductal gray are also involved in drug addiction as well as species-typical behaviors such as hunger. It would seem, then, that music, though not necessarily addictive or imperative for life, is able to interact with the same structures that mediate these functions.

As studied by Sloboda, the most effective stimuli in generating emotional responses (specifically emotional chills) seem to be new or unexpected harmony, crescendos, and other dynamic shifts. Along with this, sad music evokes chills more often than happy music.

It appears that people tend to have more chills listening to music that they already have emotional ties to than music randomly selected by experimenters. This again demonstrates the importance of learning and experience in emotional responses to music. As the emotional significance of memories impacts the strength of their storage, it is possible that music with strong emotional associations can elicit a response even in individuals with severe dementia, for example.