Which Pieces Give You the Chills?

Saturday, October 06, 2012 - 12:00 AM

On Saturday, Movies on the Radio begins a month-long series devoted to horror film soundtracks and those scores that “chill spines.”

But just what is it that causes a piece of music to create a tingling in the spine?

A growing body of research is devoted to understanding why music can create "chills"—feeling goose bumps and shivers on the neck, scalp and spine—and why some people seem to experience them while others don’t.

Last month, the website Buzzfeed looked at ASMR, or “Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response.” This self-diagnosed condition is a hyper version of goosebumps that begins as a tingle in your brain that can creep down your spine. It's usually triggered by odd sounds like folding napkins or crinkling a bag of chips. The external “triggers” differ from person to person (this phenomenon has spawned an online following including a website of ASMR Videos.)

Chills appear to be linked to the reward chemical dopamine, which has also been associated with addiction. It produces physical effects that cause changes in electrical skin conductance, heart rate, breathing and temperature.

In 2010, researchers Emily Nusbaum and Paul Silvia at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro asked students about how often music gave them chills, goosebumps or made their hair stand on end. "Although most people report having music-induced chills sometimes, some people never have them and other people have them incessantly,” they wrote in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science. “This wide variability invites the attention of personality psychology."

The researchers found that openness to new experiences was the best predictor of who is likely to react to music with chills. Individuals with an open personality also tended to listen to music more often and were more likely to play a musical instrument.

Their comments mirror those of Lisa Margulis, the director of the Music Cognition Lab at the University of Arkansas. She told Buzzfeed that the literature in music cognition suggests that one-third to half of people experience chills in response to music. But an astonishing 90 percent of performing musicians get them, as do “people who rank low on the ‘sensation seeking’ dimension of personality. Margulis says that for such individuals, "a few measures of Mahler is enough" to get their spines tingling.

What gets your spine tingling? Leave your comments below.


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Comments [18]

Bernd Willimek from Bretten / Germany

Music and Emotions

The most difficult problem in answering the question of how music creates emotions is likely to be the fact that assignments of musical elements and emotions can never be defined clearly. The solution of this problem is the Theory of Musical Equilibration. It says that music can't convey any emotion at all, but merely volitional processes, the music listener identifies with. Then in the process of identifying the volitional processes are colored with emotions. The same happens when we watch an exciting film and identify with the volitional processes of our favorite figures. Here, too, just the process of identification generates emotions.

An example: If you perceive a major chord, you normally identify with the will "Yes, I want to...". The experience of listening to a minor chord can be compared to the message conveyed when someone says, "No more." If someone were to say these words slowly and quietly, they would create the impression of being sad, whereas if they were to scream it quickly and loudly, they would be come across as furious. This distinction also applies for the emotional character of a minor chord: if a minor harmony is repeated faster and at greater volume, its sad nature appears to have suddenly turned into fury.

Because this detour of emotions via volitional processes was not detected, also all music psychological and neurological experiments, to answer the question of the origin of the emotions in the music, failed.

But how music can convey volitional processes? These volitional processes have something to do with the phenomena which early music theorists called "lead", "leading tone" or "striving effects". If we reverse this musical phenomena in imagination into its opposite (not the sound wants to change - but the listener identifies with a will not to change the sound) we have found the contents of will, the music listener identifies with. In practice, everything becomes a bit more complicated, so that even more sophisticated volitional processes can be represented musically.

Further information is available via the free download of the e-book "Music and Emotion - Research on the Theory of Musical Equilibration:


or on the online journal EUNOMIOS:


Enjoy reading

Bernd Willimek, music theorist

Feb. 18 2014 05:25 AM
Harold A. Wegert from Alabama

Beethoven's Symphony #5: transition from 3rd to 4th movement.
"The Final Countdown" film score.

Oct. 28 2012 09:29 PM

Night on Bald Mountain (an arrangement of Rimsky-Korsakov's edition made by Leopold Stokowski in one of my favorite movies of all time, Fantasia)

Oct. 11 2012 03:29 PM
David R. Roell from Maryland

I second the Berlioz Grande Messe des Morts, especially if you reconstruct, in your mind, the premiere, which was entirely in the dark on a cold December day, with only candles in the orchestra for illumination.

Also the finale of Chopin's Funeral March sonata, if it's played with manic intensity and if you know the program (think Werther), and the end of the funeral march from the Eroica, again, if you have the program.

Oct. 11 2012 02:49 PM
Leslie Kane

Great question...oftentimes this happens to me and I don't know what I'm listening to!
But here are a few:
Bach's Double Violin Concerto
Puccini's "O Soave Faniculla" from La Boheme
Beethoven's Third Piano Concerto, Second Movement
Beethoven's Ninth
Chopin's First Piano Concerto, Second Movement

Oct. 09 2012 02:03 PM
Carol Luparella from Elmwood Park, NJ

Some music that gives me chills:
The fourth movement of Mahler's First Symphony (when I've attended a live performance, even my chills get chills!)
The last movement of Mahler's Second (Resurrection) Symphony
The first part (Veni Creator Spiritus) and the final chorus of Mahler's Eighth Symphony
The beginning of Mahler's Fifth Symphony
Entrance of the Gods into Valhalla, Siegfried's Funeral March, the Immolation Scene, and various other portions of Wagner's Ring
The fourth movement of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony
"The Dream of the Witches' Sabbath" from Berlioz Symphonie Fantastique
The fourth movement of Tchaikovsky's Fourth Symphony
The final act of Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake
The final section of Mussorgsky's "Pictures at an Exhibition" (Ravel orchestration)
I'm sure there are some others, but these are the main ones (I get chills even just thinking about them!)

Oct. 09 2012 01:54 PM

For me, it's usually the end of a work that gives me THE CHILLY'S. Just a couple examples would be after the final notes of GUSTAVE MAHLER'S: First Symphony, The concluding moments of SHOSTAKOVICH'S: Symphony No. 7 (Leningrad)when the theme of the first movement returns in the brass and you know the city has regained its dignity. Just waiting for that long chord(?)building to a climax is almost unbearable for me. When it finally ends, I can feel the shivers begin. And even The VAUGHAN-WILLIAMS: Thomas Tallis Fantasia (as the strings fade away)does something to me. They just don't write stuff like this anymore. FRED

Oct. 09 2012 01:03 PM
concetta nardone from Nassau

Interview with the Vampire
Dracula, the one with Gary Oldman. Great score.
Nessun Dorma
Baritone aria from Pagliacci, Si Puo, Si Puo
In questa Reggia
Finale Act 1 Turandot
Opening storm at sea Otello
Finale Otello
Magic Fire Music
Entrance of Gods into Valhalla
Siegfried Funeral Music
Contessa Perdono from Le Nozze de Figaro
God, I really need a few pages for this one.

Oct. 09 2012 08:12 AM
Constantine from New York

Brahms's Deustches Requiem (especially the first movement (Selig sind, die da Leid tragen (Blessed be those who suffer)) and the first part of the second (Denn alles Fleisch, es ist wie Gras (All flesh is as the grass)). I always have an irrational feeling that I am tempting fate just by listening to this music!

Also, as I have said elsewhere, Dvorak's Slavonic Dance no. 12 (Opus 72, No. 4), which I find achingly beautiful.

Oct. 08 2012 04:18 PM
Joseph Schmidt from Jacksonville, FL - College, Valley Stream, NY - Hometown

So many pieces ...

Barber Violin Concerto (First and Second Movements)
Chausson: Concert for Violin, Piano and String Quartet (First movement)
Intermezzo from
Pietro Mascagni - Cavalleria Rusticana: Intermezzo
Corelli - Concerti Grossi, Op.6 No. 1

And so many more!!!

Oct. 08 2012 02:58 PM
Wouter from New York

Although it doesn't really give me the chills (other than for its sheer beauty): whoever thought of making Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D minor -the- music for mad counts and insane scientists playing the organ at all hours of the night?

Oct. 08 2012 12:09 PM
Howard from Miami, Florida

The Immolation Scene from "Go"tterda"mmerung" and "Wotan's Farewell" and "Magic Fire Music" from "Die Walku"re" do it every time.

Oct. 08 2012 10:42 AM
Barry Owen Furrer

While you're probably looking for examples from the "classical" repertoire, I get goosebumps when I hear the last strain of Sousa's "The Stars & Stripes Forever" especially when the trombone section comes in with their countermelody and the work is performed by an exceptionally fine band.

Oct. 08 2012 08:37 AM

Puccini arias and, believe it or not, this little known piece of music:


Oct. 08 2012 01:05 AM
Joelle Morrison from Staten Island

Prokofiev's "Alexander Nevsky." If you've ever seen the Eisenstein film, the chills are deeper!

Oct. 07 2012 04:02 PM
Bob Simms

High notes in certain arias give me chills. Two examples are In Questa Reggio from Turandot and also Nessun Dorma.

Oct. 07 2012 10:59 AM
Les from Miami, Florida

Berlioz's "Grand Death Mass" and Strauss's "An Alpine Symphony" trigger that response in me from sound recordings and videos alone. I can well understand why many of those at the premiere of the Berlioz had "nervous attacks" and fainted.

Oct. 07 2012 10:01 AM
Daniel Polowetzky from NYC

I don't know whether "chills" is the correct term, but the Egmont Overture has an effect on me similar to this!

Oct. 07 2012 09:58 AM

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