Why Does Music Give Some of Us the Chills?

man listening to music with headphones
Noise-canceling headphones can block out unwanted sounds. (Photo: A. and I. Kruk/Shutterstock)

Many of us feel a chill when listening to Beethoven or Bach. Others get a chill down their spine when they hear carolers singing holiday songs. But what exactly are those tingly sensations running up and down our bodies? And what is the scientific explanation? Msnbc.com reports that they are most common in people who share an “open” personality.

According to new research, whether or not you get chills listening to meaningful music depends on an “openness to experience” personality trait. Researchers Emily Nusbaum and Paul Silvia of University of North Carolina at Greensboro asked a group of students to share how often they got chills listening to music. This included feelings such as goose bumps, feeling as if their hair was standing on end, or getting chills down their spines. The researchers describe music chills are also known as aesthetic chills and can be found across the body.

After recording their subjects' penchant for chills, the researchers asked the students to describe their personality in one of five ways, including agreeableness, extraversion or openness to experience. As Science Daily reports, the students who rated themselves with “openness to experience” were much more likely to gets chills from music. As Msnbc.com points out, “openness to experience” means that these people are more inclined to appreciate aesthetics such as art and movies. They were also more likely to play an instrument and rate music as an important part of their lives.

Nusbaum and Silvia assert that the way people experience chills shows some of the innate differences between people. As they write via Science Daily, “Some people seem to have never experienced chills while listening to music — around 8 percent of people in our study — but other people experience chills basically every day. Findings like these are what the make the study of personality and music interesting — music is a human universal, but some people get a lot more out of it.”

Other experts point out that music chills are due to the interpretation of the music by the listener. Oliver Grewe is a biologist and musicologist. As he told Live Science, "Music is a recreative activity. Even if it is relaxing to listen to, the listener has to recreate its meaning, the feelings it expresses. It is the listener who gives life to the emotions in music.” Grewe also asserts that music can do more than just give us chills — it can also ease labor pains, lessen depression, and even reduce the need for sedation during surgery.

Have a liking for Beethoven and feel like you have an open personality? Give this a listen and let us know if you agree with these findings.

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