I love music. I try to spend as much of my day as possible listening to a multitude of artists and bands, singles and full albums. To me, the best feeling in the world is when you’re listening to an amazing song, and then it hits you—the goosebumps. The sensation of getting goosebumps while listening to good music is such a universal phenomenon that it has led scientists to actually research the causes behind it. So, why exactly does good music cause us to feel goosebumps? Are different types of music more likely to induce goosebumps than others?
The word “goosebumps” is actually just a name for the physical reaction to a larger experience. The whole experience is known as frisson, which is a French term that refers to a sudden feeling of excitement. In frisson, the excited feeling produces a shudder in the body, causing goosebumps to occur. According to this article, goosebumps are believed to have been very important to our ancestors, helping to keep heat in a thick layer of fur. However, it is pretty useless for humans today, as we no longer have fur. The same article states that goosebumps are physiological and occur when the hormone adrenaline is released, which happens when we are stressed or feeling particularly strong emotions.
This may indicate why we still get goosebumps today, and why they occur when we listen to music. According to research, music evokes strong emotions in people. In this study, it was found that listening to music releases dopamine, which transmits neurons in the brain when things make us happy. What was unique about this study, however, was that the dopamine released in the same area of the brain where the brain processes rewards. This means that music is quite literally a rewarding activity for us.
So, music clearly has the ability to impact our mood, and when we have a strong, sudden, change in emotions, we get goosebumps. The link seems pretty clear in that regard. However, are there certain types of music that trigger this change in emotions, or “the chills”? Contrary to what you might think, research has shown that it is actually sad music that more commonly causes people to experience goosebumps. According to this article, a study published in a Japanese journal found that sad music causes people to experience more positive emotions. During the study, 44 people were split into two groups: one group listened to a happy song and the other group listened to a sad song. After listening, the participants were asked to report how they felt after the song, and those in the sad song group actually reported feeling both negative and positive emotions, creating a stronger impression overall. If it produces a more powerful feeling, this may explain why sad music would induce goosebumps.
While scientists are not 100% certain what causes goosebumps while listening to music (although we are never completely positive of anything in science), research indicates that there could be a link between unexpected and emotions and the onset of goosebumps. By altering our mood drastically, music triggers that physical response. It certainly is one of the more interesting little phenomena in our world.