Ever hear a piece of music that’s so moving that you feel it physically? The phenomenon—called “musical frissons” or “skin orgasms”—is common, but no one is entirely sure as to why they happen.
BBC Future writer David Robson recently profiled Psyche Loui, a musician and a psychologist at Wesleyan University, who became interested in musical frissons after experiencing deep physical sensations while listening to Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2 while she was in college.
When experiencing a skin orgasm, people report sensations ranging from spin-tingling to goosebumps to sexual arousal.“The aesthetic experience can be so intense that you can’t do anything else,” Loui describes.
“We normally only respond like this to experiences that might ensure or endanger our survival–food, reproduction, or the terrifying plummet of a rollercoaster,” Robson writes. “How can music–hardly a life-or-death pursuit–move the mind and the body as powerfully as sex?”
There are plenty of theories:
As Loui has noticed herself with Rachmaninov’s concerto, people are often able to pick out specific measures that release an outpouring of those sensations. Using those reports, researchers have then been able to pinpoint the kinds of features that are more likely to trigger the different sensations during a musical frisson. Sudden changes in harmony, dynamic leaps (from soft to loud), and melodic appoggiaturas (dissonant notes that clash with the main melody, like you’ll find in Adele’s Someone Like You) seem to be particularly powerful. “Musical frisson elicit a physiological change that’s locked to a particular point in the music,” says Loui.
...When composers straddle the boundary between the familiar and unfamiliar, playing with your expectations using unpredictable flourishes (like appoggiaturas or sweeping harmonic changes), they hit a sweet spot that pleasantly teases the brain, and this may produce a frisson.
The release of dopamine caused by a pleasant musical surprise triggers a reaction in the brain that’s similar to what happens when people take drugs or have sex. Couple this with emotions and memories and you’re left with “a heady emotional cocktail” that comes up whenever you hear a particular song or movement.
“Our own autobiographical experiences interact with the musical devices,” Loui tells Robson, “so that everyone finds a different piece of music rewarding.”
Robson and Loui speculate that “musical frisson could be our reward” for training our brains in a way that inspires empathy and bonding :
...Loui is intrigued by recent studies showing that the denser the wiring between the auditory, social and emotional parts of the brain, the more skin orgasms you feel. That could, perhaps, be a neurological signature of music’s social importance. Others have found that making music and dancing together produces more altruistic and cohesive groups, with one study finding that chill-inducing music is particularly good at promoting altruism in the lab’s subjects. Maybe it is the rush of endorphins from a skin orgasm that helps promote the communal goodwill.
What the world needs now is skin orgasms—and lots of them.
Contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.