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SOUNDS ODD  by Elizabeth Holmes
Fun Facts on the Science of Sound
#20: Your Brain On Music - Chill Out!
My first major in college was ethology (animal behavior). I chose this field because I had this wild idea that someday, somebody would actually pay me to hang out in the forest and study wolves.   

I guess you could say that I’ve always been a sucker for wolf calls. They give me the chills.  

Recent neurological research confirms that "getting the chills” when listening to music – natural or man-made – is something that our brains do spectacularly well.   


An interesting twist on this phenomenon confirms that anticipating a fabulous passage in a musical composition is more likely to give us the chills than actually getting to hear the passage itself.  

Scientists speculate that one reason this happens is because our brains are good at predicting what will happen next. Just think what an advantage that gives us, evolutionarily speaking.   

Scientists also speculate that the chills occur because music is unpredictable – unexpected ‘voices’ (instruments), new juxtapositions, and changes in volume and intensity all add elements of surprise that delight us. 

When we anticipate these musical shifts, reward pathways light up in our brains. 

(Incidentally, the chills that we experience when we anticipate these delights look the same on brain scans as the pleasure we experience during sex and when under the influence of recreational drugs. Hmmm…)  


But we’re not all equal when it comes to enjoying these thrills. There’s evidence that the intensity of the pleasure that you feel – the likelihood that you’ll have significant chills – will be influenced by your personality. 

People who are more open to new experiences are more likely to experience chills. For instance, if you are a musician, the likelihood that you will experience musical chills climbs to 90% of the time!  


One final note: Music doesn’t have to build to a crescendo in a major key, or be overwhelmingly "positive” to produce chills in a listener. 

In fact, studies show that sad music is equally enjoyable - in a chill-inducing way - precisely because it allows us to have a safe experience of difficult emotions. 

First, we thought something awful was about to happen. Then, when that didn’t happen, instead, we discovered that we were safe. Aaaahhh – the bliss of relief!  

For me, this puts the mournful beauty of wolf howls in perspective. Their haunting harmonies will forever be a source of hair-raising pleasure for me. Particularly that first chord, when it rises up out of a prelude of yips and barks.

It’s unpredictable, because each pack has its own rhythm and timing. And that makes anticipating the moment that much more enjoyable – one could even say, chilling.   

For more on the neurology of musical pleasure, please see: Why Does Music Give Us The Chills? 

Elizabeth Holmes is a writer, voice actor, and staff editor at VoiceOverXtra, based in Northern California. She is also editor of VoiceOverXtra's book division, including Voice Over Legal, by voice actor / attorney Robert Sciglimpaglia.


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Comments (3)
Don Griffith
11/30/2013 at 10:42 PM
Being musically inclined and, after reading the last paragraph two or three times, the cross-field reference gave...goosebumps!
Marie Hoffman
11/18/2013 at 8:01 AM
I always enjoy and learn something new from Elizabeth's columns. Keep 'em coming!!

ann m richardson
11/17/2013 at 10:28 PM
Excellent article! Music definitely gives me the chills, especially a competition marching band.
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