Music & Emotion

Who gets musical chills and why?

Paper: Nusbaum, E.C. & Silva, P.J. (2010). Shivers and Timbres: Personality and the Experience of Chills from Music. Social Psychology and Personality Science. The online version of this article is available here.

1404376307_f595ceff9f_o Yesterday I was listening to a youtube version of Pavarotti singing Panis Angelicus with his father, recorded in their family church in Modena in 1978 ( As the pair reach the final high note of the final phrase together, I get a little shiver down my spine: Wonderful. There is something about the song and their performance in particular that is so powerful for me that it sets off a physical reaction. What is that all about?

Have you ever had the experience of listening to a favourite piece of music and suddenly you get a little spikey feeling running down your spine?  How about goose bumps on the skin? Maybe a tingling sensation at the back of your neck? All these unique emotive reactions to music fall under the definition of ‘musical chills’, also termed frisson, thrills and shivers (and apparently, and intriguingly, ‘skin orgasms’!)

Not everyone gets this sensation and some people get it very frequently. It is an extremely intriguing emotional response to music that is almost entirely unique to each individual – both in terms of the sensation itself and the music that triggers it. However, a new paper has sought to determine whether certain personality factors reliably mediate the experience of musical chills.

Emily Nusbaum and Paul Silva have compiled a very readable and interesting history of research on the chills phenomenon. Apparently in some studies less than 25% of participants report experiencing chills, however the limitations of the lab environment are exposed when figures from a study by Sloboda (1991) revealed that 90% of people reported experiencing shivers down the spine and 62% reported experiencing goose bumps at some point in the last 5 years.

The massive variability in chills reports across people has lead the authors of this paper to suggest there is a major role for personality, as both a predictor and a moderator of situational effects. Personality certainly plays a strong role in musical preferences and experiences (Rentfrow and McDonald, 2010).

In the present study the authors tested a sample of 196 people (110 women and 86 men) enrolled at the University of North Carolina, USA who ranged in age from 18-45 (Mean = 19.7).  People participated in groups of up to 8 in an assessment exercise comprising the completion of carefully selected questionnaires.

1) They assessed experiences of chills using their own specially developed scale.

2) They used the 60 item Five Factor Inventory to test the Big 5″ personality traits (Extraversion, Neuroticism, Openness to Experience, Agreeableness, and Conscientiousness).

3) They used the STOMP to measure musical preferences in terms of genre (Short Test of Musical Preferences)

4) They asked people about their experience and engagement with music using simple 5 point scales

5) They assessed general knowledge about the arts using Smith and Smith’s (2006) aesthetic fluency scale.

They found a wide variability in people’s experiences of chills in everyday life as measured by frequency, and therefore supported the findings from the background literature. For example, around 8% of their sample seemed to have little or no experience of the phenomenon at all.

They used a confirmatory factor analysis to look at the correlations with personality and chills experience and found that the five factors explained 12.6% of the variance in chills. Openness to experience emerged as the biggest predicting factors and was actually the only factor with a significant effect. There was no confound with musical preference interestingly; Openness did not predict preferences as measured by the STOMP.

The authors then tried a second mediation model to see if musical engagement and experiences mediated chills. These appeared to be much more important factors as they explained 29.8% of the variance in chills and the direct additional effect of Openness was insignificant.

People who are more ‘Open to Experiences’ apparently attend more concerts, rated music as more important to them, scored higher on knowledge of the arts and were more likely to play an instrument.

So who gets musical chills and why? This research suggests that individual differences measured by personality traits can, to an extent, reliably predict whether someone is more or less likely to experience chills.

Consistent with previous work, Openness to Experience is a significant predictor of variance in chills but this factor also predicts major aspects of musical engagement.  In this sense it appears that chills are part of a wider factor that represents experience and level of engagement with music in an individual’s life, but that patterns of musical preferences are more or less immaterial.

So if you are really into your music, whatever that is, then chills are likely to follow! I love my Pavarotti, so perhaps it is not so surprising that the sight of him singing tenderly and yet powerfully with his beloved father triggers such an emotional response. But it is great to see that people are rigorously examining the patterns of individual differences and pinning the predictors and mediators of this experience.

Conclusions such as these might seem a bit obvious after the fact, but it is important to remember that often what you rule out as a predictor in any effect (in this case musical preferences) can be as interesting and as important as what you find.