Sarah Johnston explains how music affects the human body, and why it can be incredibly stimulating
There is nothing like a good song.
We’ve all had that experience: your playlist is on shuffle and then it hits that song and you feel the chills run down your back. Your hair stands on end, you can feel your heartbeat - it's like an emotional punch in the stomach. But why does music provoke such a strong reaction from us?
Music stimulates a reward pathway in the brain which floods our system with dopamine, the chemical in our body that controls mood, sleep, memory, concentration, and motor control. Dopamine specifically floods the striatum, an area of the forebrain that deals with addiction, motivation, and rewards. It is literally addictive to listen to good music! It is the reason we love to binge songs until we’re sick of them – each time we listen, we get a hit of dopamine.
But the dopamine reaction is much more complicated than you just listen to a song and feel happy. Our brains are excellent at predicting rhythms and patterns so your dopamine levels actually spike before the part of a song that gives you chills. This is a survival mechanism, buried deep in our subconscious, leftover from the days when making a prediction on a sound or situation could literally mean life or death. The more a song changes, or teases us, or builds up, the more dopamine builds up in our brains and the bigger the reaction it provokes in us.
This effect is especially prevalent in sad songs because melancholy tunes and minor chords trigger a distress response in our brains, which originates from our pre-verbal times as a species when we only had noises to communicate upset or fear. However, if you’ve ever got the chills from a sad song, you’re probably aware that they don’t usually make you feel all that bad. Our bodies' reactions to music are usually overwhelmingly positive. This is because as well as releasing dopamine, they also release adrenaline which makes our bodies more alert, giving us increased energy and brain function.
When you boil music down to its fundamentals it can be compared to comedy in many ways, in the sense that there must be a setup that causes tension, followed by a punchline which gives relief and so causes laughter. The build-up in a song works very similarly: your brain – clever like it is– starts to notice those patterns I discussed earlier and starts building up adrenaline in preparation for the crescendo. The music builds and builds – and actually puts your brain under stress trying to work out what is going to happen – and then suddenly peaks and your adrenaline production stops as your brain stops stressing about completing the pattern. The adrenaline is released into your system and causes your pupils to dilate, your hairs to stand on end, your heart to beat faster, your brain to work quicker, and, of course, you to experience chills.
What music in fact does to your body is make it question whether or not there is a threat in your immediate future. The adrenaline spikes your brain activity to make sure you’re able to determine if there is any real danger as quickly as possible, and as soon as your brain realizes there is no real threat your fear response stops, but it takes a few minutes for the adrenaline to be processed by your body.
The most interesting thing about getting the chills is what causes it – or more accurately what doesn’t cause it. You can get chills from any genre from opera to classical, pop to heavy metal. The process has nothing to do with the style, it's all about the change in the music. It’s why key changes in the final verses of songs are so popular, especially in places like the theatre, where the aim is to make the audience emote.
However, just because our brain knows what is coming, doesn’t necessarily mean we won’t get a dopamine hit next time. When we know what is coming next, our nucleus accumbens becomes more active. This part of the brain controls our reinforcement learning – like the Pavlovian response – and when we hear the section of music that originally gave us a hit of dopamine, because this time the brain has been able to predict it, it gives us another hit of dopamine as a reward. This part of the brain is a key factor in controlling addiction, which is why once you’ve heard a good song once you’ll often listen to it multiple times in close succession.
Another big factor in getting the chills is your environment. Have you ever noticed that the music hits you much more in a cinema than it would on your Spotify? Or that you get chills a lot at concerts? This is because of the context of the situation you are listening to the music in. If the music is used as part of a drama e.g. in a film or show, it will often create a deeper emotional response in the listener because of our association between sounds and emotions. Similarly in shows, as you are invested in the characters, the songs they sing often ‘hit you harder’ because you sympathise with their cause.
In a concert environment, you also have the impact of those around you. If you’ve ever heard the saying ‘their smile is infectious’, it's not actually far from the truth. Hormonal responses in your body not only depend on your own hormone levels, but the hormone levels of those around you. Your body can subtly sense the hormones of those around you. It’s particularly prevalent in nightclub environments with testosterone, but it can equally happen with adrenaline. Stress hormones are one of the varieties which synchronise themselves according to those around you, so if you’re at a concert with lots of other nervous, excited people, your body will adapt your adrenaline levels to match the situation. This is again a subconscious response left over from our early evolution, from when survival was dependent on working together.
Music is one of the most powerful hormonal and chemical imbalances in our lives, and its power should not be underestimated.
However, I don’t think we should let science overshadow the more important factor at play here, which is the individual. If you love a song, then that is the right reaction for you. If you hate a song, then that is the right reaction for you. Our chemical responses are not gospel, and should always be taken with a pinch of salt. If you love a song and it makes you feel happy, then that is what matters above all. Our bodies are hardwired to react to music in certain ways, but our brains, our emotions, and experiences also should have their input.
So blast your Billie Eilish, turn up your Tchaikovsky, and sing along to Six, because the most important thing about music will always be how it makes you feel!