What is Frisson?

Frisson is the French word for shivering that researchers use to describe getting the "chills" during a powerful emotional experience. Frisson can be caused by music, movies, beauty in nature, and other stimuli. It includes a physical sensation (chills, shivers down the spine, shudders), an emotional response (euphoria, thrills, excitement, fear), and a physiological reaction (goosebumps, faster breathing, increased heart rate, pupil dilation, enhanced skin conductance). When you experience frisson your brain releases dopamine - the neurotransmitter that reinforces behaviors necessary for survival and is associated with food, drugs, and sex - making these moments especially powerful, enjoyable, and even addictive. 

 

FAQs

+ How does music give us frisson?

We experience frisson when something unexpected happens in music that triggers a brief fear response. As frisson expert David Huron explains, "the acoustic factors involved in frisson all evoke fear, especially at the sub-cortical level." Why do fear-inducing moments of music give us goosebumps and pleasurable chills? It's because fear triggers our body's flight-or-fight response. Part of this response is adrenaline, which causes skin muscles to contract that make our body hair stand on end (goosebumps). Its theorized that we get goosebumps because they helped our evolutionary ancestors (who had much more body hair than we do) appear larger and less of an easy target to predators. It feels good when music gives us goosebumps because our brain releases pleasurable dopamine. Its thought that this occurs because of the relief we experience when our brain realizes, after a momentary fear response, that its "just music" and there is no real danger. We appear to be "rewarding" ourselves with dopamine for "avoiding" a threat that never actually existed.

+ Why does music give us frisson?

There are three leading theories:

1) To encourage pro-social behavior and group formation

This theory, supported by neuroscientist Matthew Sachs' recent groundbreaking research, suggests frisson (and music more broadly) evolved because it encourages empathy and social bonding. From this perspetive, frisson developed and persisted because it enables us to express our emotions and move each other with music, out of which compassion and relationships can emerge. As researcher Oliver Grewe puts it, "When thinking about the evolutionary bases of pleasure and chills in reaction to music, one should consider the possibility that it is not the phenomena such as the pilerection or shivers that make chills evolutionarily important, but the emotional process that takes place."

2) To encourage infant caregiving

This theory, pioneered by neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp, argues that frisson evolved to encourage parents to care for their infants. From this pespective, frisson works by triggering a separation-distress brain system that we all share. When we hear an infant distress call (e.g. a baby crying), this brain system makes us feel cold "chills" to encourage us to physically go to and hold the infant in distress in order to warm up. Frisson encourages us to literally hold those in need.

3) It serves no purpose and is "auditory cheesecake"

Psychologist Steven Pinker famously coined this phrase to describe his view that music has no evolutionary purpose. A similar theory can be applied to frisson. From this perspective, frisson is a "bug" in our brain's reward system that musicians have discovered and use to give us auditory pleasure. Like cheesecake, musical frisson feels wonderful and provides real pleasure, but it did not evolve to help our survival.

+ Can anyone get frisson from music?

Researchers have found that 50-60% of the population experiences music-induced frisson, in contrast to 80% of music lovers and 90% of musicians. Studies also indicate women are more likely to experience music-induced frisson than men.

+ Is frisson the same thing as ASMR (Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response)?

The research is a bit of a rabbit hole, but to be brief, we don't think they are the same thing. Here is article with frisson expert David Huron's take.

+ Do the same moments in music give everyone frisson?

Some moments are more universal and some are more idiosyncratic. Music can be highly personal; a certain moment may give you chills but do nothing for me because you associate a memory with that moment (e.g. you listened to the song during your first date in high school) or because its from a genre that you love and I hate (if I dislike a certain genre or band, I am unlikley to give a song from that genre the attentive listening required to be moved to the point of chills).

After reviewing hundreds of thousands of listener frisson moments, however, its irrefutable that certain frisson moments tend to be MUCH more popular and reliable than others. This is exactly what we are focused on: figuring out what distinguishes the more universal moments, in order to help composers and producers create more of them.

+ Are you implying music is simply emotional manipulation through sound?

Of course not. We think something would be horribly wrong and fundamentally lost if music is only viewed as a mechanism for producing physical responses like frisson (or sleep, relaxation, focus, etc.). We think that music is first and foremost an outlet to express ourselves and feel connected to other people. Playing, composing, and listening to music are valuable in and of themselves for these social functions.

But it seems imprudent to ignore music's ability to produce pleasurable sensations that may have positive physical or emotional benefits. Frisson has been anecdotally linked to stress relief and there are studies probing its effect on cardiovascular health. Aside from the fact that it is highly enjoyable, we think musical frisson has significant health and wellness possibilities.

For more on our thoughts about the role of frisson and AI in music, see our essay here.