‘Musical chills’: How your favorite songs send your brain into ‘pleasure overload’

BESANCON, France — At some point or another, we all have experienced that joyful sensation when our favorite song comes on the radio. It can change your whole mood, especially when “that moment” in every song hits and sends chills down your spine. So what causes this hair-raising jolt to the system? French researchers say studies on the brain reveal many people go into pleasure overload when their favorite tunes start playing.

Researcher Thibault Chabin and a team at the Université de Bourgogne Franche-Comté examined the brains of 18 people who regularly get these chills when listening to music. After answering a questionnaire about how much pleasure they get from music, each volunteer received an EEG brain scan.

“Participants of our study were able to precisely indicate ‘chill-producing’ moments in the songs, but most musical chills occurred in many parts of the extracts and not only in the predicted moments,” says Chabin in a media release.

What’s going on in your brain?

Study authors discovered specific electrical activity in the orbitofrontal cortex when music lovers experience a chill. This region is involved with emotional processing. There was also more activity in the supplementary motor area and the right temporal lobe, which handles auditory processing and musical appreciation on the right side of the brain.

All these regions work together to help humans process music, stimulate the brain’s reward centers, and release the “feel good” hormone dopamine. When you combine these reactions with the pleasurable anticipation of hearing your favorite chord strike in a song, the result is a tingly chill. This is a response that indicates greater connectivity in the cerebrum.

“The fact that we can measure this phenomenon with EEG brings opportunities for study in other contexts, in scenarios that are more natural and within groups,” Chabin adds. “This represents a good perspective for musical emotion research.”

‘An ancestral function for music’

The brain scan each participant underwent is a non-invasive procedure which reads the electrical currents caused by brain activity. Researchers placed sensors on each music lover’s scalp to measure theta activity. These low frequency electrical signals are a type of impulse linked to memory performance and musical appreciation.

“Contrary to heavy neuroimaging techniques such as PET scan or fMRI, classic EEG can be transported outside of the lab into naturalistic scenarios,” Chabin explains. “What is most intriguing is that music seems to have no biological benefit to us. However, the implication of dopamine and of the reward system in processing of musical pleasure suggests an ancestral function for music.”

Study authors believe this inherited function tied to music may reveal the brain’s ability to predict future events. As humans wait for something they know is coming, the brain releases more dopamine.

The study appears in the journal Frontiers in Neuroscience.

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