Which Pieces Give You the Chills?

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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.