:: pleasurable chills or goosebumps during a powerful emotional experience


Frisson is the French word for shivering that researchers use to describe pleasurable chills. 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. 


We experience frisson when something radically unexpected happens in music that triggers our fight-or-flight response. Part of this response is the release of adrenaline, which causes our skin muscles to contract and make our body hair stand on end (i.e. goosebumps). 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 the momentary fear response, that its “just music” and there is no real danger. We reward ourselves for avoiding a threat that never existed!

There are three leading theories of why this powerful response to music evolved among humans:

  1. It encourages pro-social behavior: Cognitive scientist Matthew Sachs’ groundbreaking research suggests that music more broadly, and frisson in particular, evolved because they encouraged empathy and enabled group formation. 
  2. It encourages infant caregiving: Neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp’s work suggests that our frisson response evolved because cold chills caused by infant cries encouraged parents to physically go to and hold infants in distress in order to warm up.
  3. It serves no evolutionary purpose: Psychologist Steven Pinker’s argues that music, and therefore also frisson, have absolutely no evolutionary purpose. Its simply a “bug” in our reward system that musicians use to give us auditory pleasure. 

The short answer is that frisson and ASMR are different but related. Frisson expert David Huron conducted a recent study on ASMR vs. frisson and concluded that they are both subcortical fear responses triggered by different stimuli. Anecdotally, ASMR responders report a more calming, “tingling” sensation while musical frisson responders report a more energizing, goosebumps response.

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

After reviewing thousands of listener frisson moments, our team has found that certain passages tend to be MUCH more popular and reliable than others for producing the frisson response. What’s even more promising is that these more universal moments have a consistent set of acoustic and structural features. 

Of course, many moments are idiosyncratic. A certain passage may do nothing for me but may give you chills because you associate a memory with that moment that I don’t have (e.g. you listened to the song during your first date in high school, etc.). The qBrio team is focusing on more universal moments in order to help composers and producers create music that gives broad audiences frisson.