Dr. Universe: Why does music give us chills? -Nicole, 11, Spokane, Wash.

Dear Friends,

If you are anything like me, maybe you’ve suddenly felt a chill while listening to music. Perhaps, you got goosebumps and saw your arm hairs stand on end. Maybe you even teared up.

The truth is I really wasn’t sure why music gives us chills, but I was determined to find out. My first stop was the Washington State University School of Music. That’s where I met up with my friend and music professor Greg Yasinitsky.

Different sounds, different emotions

He played a few different notes on the piano in his office. He told me that if you play three or more notes at once, it’s called a chord.

Major chords tend to make us happy,” he said. “Minor chords are more ominous or sad.”

However, when the music tends to be sad people don’t always describe it as unpleasant, he adds. Just think of an emotional or dramatic part of a movie. Even if the music has more of a sad sound, sometimes it brings about a positive emotion.

Composers will sometimes mix around major and minor chords to play with a listener’s emotions. They also play with things like rhythm, the strong regular repetition of sound, and melody, or the sequence of notes that helps a song sound just right.

Feeling the chills

Yasinitsky said there seem to be two situations in which people will report feeling the chills. The first is when a listener hears something that is a surprise. Maybe a song has a pretty repetitive pattern, but then something happens that they weren’t expecting.

“That one little change suddenly has this immense importance and for a lot of people could send a chill up their spine,” Yasinitsky said.

Another situation where people might get the chills is when they hear something that is not a surprise. When they finally hear what they’ve been expecting, they might get goosebumps.

A human connection to music

Of course, not everyone gets the chills—and different kinds of music may bring out the chills in different people. Either way, most people have an emotional connection to music.

“Pretty much every culture on the planet has music,” Yasinitsky said. “Even those that have outlawed music, they chant, they are still singing. We all need music.”

After chatting with Yasinitsky, I headed across campus to visit the WSU neuroscience department. That’s where I met up with our friend Steve Simasko. He told me more about music, emotions, and the brain. But we’ll explore that next week.

Be a music maker

In the meantime, you can try making your own instruments at home. Collect different supplies like rubber bands, popsicle sticks, toilet paper tubes, or other kinds of materials to create your own sounds. Try making a coffee can drum or some maracas. If you are feeling really ambitious, try out a shoebox guitar. Maybe you can play a tune along with your friends. Let me know how it goes.

Sincerely,
Dr. Universe

Make Music