Songwriter's Corner|

By Lila MacLellan, Quartz at Work reporter | Academics have spent years investigating why some songs give people “chills,” usually described as a pleasurable sensation of tingles, or a shiver, often accompanied by goosebumps.

One prominent assertion is that as we listen to music, our minds are racing ahead to imagine what’s coming, and we get chills when our predictions are completely off. Perhaps the dynamic changes unexpectedly or a surprising instrument slides into the mix. Another possibility is that people who get chills have more connections between the auditory and reward systems in the brain. Still other scientists have proposed that people who are more empathetic are more prone to experience chills because of emotional contagion.

Recent research led by Rémi de Fleurian, a PhD candidate in the music cognition lab at Queen Mary University of London, supports yet another common finding: The songs that trigger chills—or “frisson” to scientists — are typically sad ones. What was perhaps more interesting about de Fleurian’s newest work, however, is how he conducted it.

“A lot of previous work was either completely theoretical or based on studies which were run on a small group of participants,” he explains, but his paper shows that “you can do similar work, and achieve similar results with work that is entirely computational.”

De Fleurian and his co-author, Marcus Pearce, a senior lecturer of music perception at the same university, combed through published studies and compiled a list of more than 700 songs that have been identified as being chills-inducing. Then, using data from Spotify, they matched each song with another piece by the same artist that was roughly equal in length and popularity. Next, they went about comparing the two pieces of music, analyzing several features, including each song’s mood.

In the end, certain characteristics about music that prompt chills emerged from the data. On average, they were “sadder, slower, less intense, and more instrumental than matched tracks.” What made a chills-inducing song carried the hallmark of “sophisticated music,” as music researchers call it. Here, sophistication means “relaxing, quiet, nondanceable, slow, nonelectric, and instrumental,” as they explain in the paper, which was published by the journal i-Perception.
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