Some of us get the chills when hearing Handel’s exultant “Messiah” this time of year. For others, it’s the simple, yet joyful opening strains of Vince Guaraldi’s music at the start of “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” Or it might be Bing Crosby’s poignant “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” that triggers goose bumps. (Or for the sillier of us, his whimsical “Mele Kalikimaka” might just do it.)
Well, it turns out that getting chills upon hearing music is an actual thing, you know, like scientists study. And a new report in the journal Social Psychology and Personality Science says that who gets music-induced chills and who doesn’t might depend on personality.
Musical chills, write the authors, from the University of North Carolina, are “sometimes known as aesthetic chills, thrills, shivers, frisson, and even skin orgasms [who knew?] … and involve a seconds-long feeling of goose bumps, tingling, and shivers, usually on the scalp, the back of the neck, and the spine, but occasionally across most of the body.”
The scientific explanation for chills is that the emotions evoked by beautiful or meaningful music stimulate the part of the brain called the hypothalamus, which controls primal drives such as hunger, sex and rage and also involuntary responses like blushing and goosebumps. When the song soars, your body can't help but shiver.
Some people report lots of skin orgasms and some people say they never get them, but the personality trait “openness to experience” seems like a good predictor. (By "open to experience" the researchers seem to mean those people who enjoy art, good movies, aesthetic stuff.)
That’s what the North Carolina researchers wanted to test. So they took 196 people and assessed their music preferences; how often they experienced chills, goose bumps, hair standing on end and the like; their engagement with music (such as whether they played an instrument); and their personality types. The only personality trait with a significant impact on music-induced chills was indeed “openness.”
Genre, the style of music people listened to, didn’t seem to matter, though a deeper engagement with music in general did. So “Messiah,” Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas,” and your child’s rendition of “Oh Christmas Tree” might all give chills (though your kid’s singing might just be scary) if you’re the open type.
In 2007, scientists from the University of California San Diego studied whether or not getting chills from music enhanced altruism by measuring whether or not those who got them were more willing to donate blood. It turned out that the skin orgasm getters may be open, but chills didn’t make them any more giving, which might mean those guys ringing those damn bells ought to give it a rest already. Since music doesn't make us any more generous why not play something good? Try some Vince Guaraldi instead.
What music gives you chills? Tell us in the comments.