Have you ever gotten a brief, intense chill down your spine or arms because you had an emotional reaction to the music you were listening to? Like, you are in your study, library, billiard room, or conservatory enjoying a glass of amontillado while listening to some Bach or Air Supply, when all of a sudden, during a particularly intense passage, the hairs on your arm stand on end.
Not everyone gets goosebumps from music; studies show that more than half of people do experience it. The French have a word for it: frisson, which has been translated as “aesthetic chills.” In English, some use the term skin-gasm. There’s a group on reddit where users post examples of particularly frisson-inducing music; current examples include Smashing Pumpkins, Frank Zappa, and Andrew Jackson Jihad.
It’s likely that our ancient forebears used an endothermic layer of heat retained beneath the hairs of their skin to keep warm; the goosebumps were the result of a rapid change in temperature, but they haven’t phased out of our evolutionary trajectory since the invention of clothing. However, it may be beginning to fade out of our collective humanity, since the frisson is only prevalent to about 55-86% of the population.
Those evolutionary roots may explain why the goosebumps we get from listening to music often come at times of dramatic changes in volume or pitch, or the appearance of an emotionally charged performance by a soloist. The more sudden such a change is, the more that listeners’ expectations are violated, and the more that we are (in evolutionary terms) thrust back into the distant past, maybe a terrifying woolly mammoth coming upon you in the middle of the night.
A team led by Dr. Amani El-Alayli, a professor of Social Psychology at Eastern Washington University has been investigating what differentiates the people who can and cannot experience music-derived “skin-gasms.” El-Alayli and his colleagues tested the cognitive immersion of several people listening to a variety of different songs and also asked them to complete personality tests. The results from the project concluded that listeners who experienced frisson also scored high for a personality trait called “Openness to Experience.”
This chart shows the reactions of a single listener in the lab. The spikes in each line correlate to junctures when the listener was particularly cognitively or emotionally aroused by the music. The peaks of excitement coincide perfectly with the experiencing of frisson in reaction to the music. (Air Supply just didn’t do anything for this particular subject, it seems.)
This participant was one of the ones who scored well on “Openness to Experience.” Studies have shown that people who possess “Openness to Experience” have “unusually active imaginations, appreciate beauty and nature, seek out new experiences, often reflect deeply on their feelings, and love variety in life,” according to social psychologist Mitchell Colver of Utah State University.
This paper’s conclusion indicates that “those who intellectually immerse themselves in music (rather than just letting it flow over them) might experience frisson more often and more intensely than others.”
via Live for Live Music