People who are strongly affected by music sometimes claim that it gives them chills down their spine and makes their hair stand on end. (The technical term is "piloerection".) When we are effected in this way by music, art, or by the grandeur of nature, what exactly is going on? Can some kind of evolutionary explanation help us make sense of the experience?
One of the most intriguing explanations for music's "chill" effect has been offered by neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp. Panksepp found that chills and piloerection were most likely to be associated with sad music, and with the bleak simplicity of a solo soprano voice or instrument emerging from a relatively richer musical background. A great example occurs in Whitney Houston's version of Dolly Parton's song "I Will Always Love You," when the words of the title are repeated at the beginning of the third rendition of the chorus. Panksepp offers an evolutionary explanation for the origin of the chill phenomenon, whether the music involved is a popular song, operatic aria, or instrumental work. He argues that chills may emerge from brain dynamics associated with the perception of social loss, specifically with separation calls. Separation calls are cries by young animals that inform parents of the whereabouts of offspring that have become lost. The "coldness" of chills may provide increased motivation for social reunion in the parents. So certain kinds of sad and bittersweet music may achieve its beauty and its chilling effect through a symbolic rendition of the separation call.
Recent experimental work on piloerection and the chill phenomenon by Mathias Benedek and Christian Kaernbach offers some support for Panksepp's hypothesis. Subjects listened, on headphones, to four short musical selections and four short audio excerpts from film soundtracks. Researchers monitored their physical responses, including skin conductivity, and cardiovascular and respiratory measures, and set up a camera to record piloerection. They found that some of the listeners' responses, specifically short-term increases in heart-rate and in respiration depth, were consistent with the physiological reactions usually associated with non-crying sadness. While the existence of a connection between piloerection and sadness lends some support to Panksepp's ideas, researchers did not find much evidence for any connection between piloerection and a sense of coldness.
Benedek and Kaernbach suggest that "sadness" is probably inadequate to describe the specific emotional states association with piloerection. After all, "having one's hair stand on end" is associated with thrilling or pleasurable events, as well as with eerie or upsetting episodes. Another possibility is to link piloerection to the emotional state of awe or (to a lesser state) of being "moved" or "touched." Drawing on the fact that in animals the erection of body hair is triggered in threat situations, Benedek and Kaernback speculate that emotional piloerection in humans might be an evolutionary relic corresponding to the threatening aspect of being moved or touched. If, following the work of psychologist Vladimir Konečni, we think of awe as a combination of fear and joy, then we would expect ambivalent experiences to be associated with piloerection. And the evidence does seem to point in that direction.
It may turn out that some of the most rarefied and profound feelings we can experience have their origins deep in our evolutionary past. I look forward to future experimental work and insights.
Benedek, M., Kaernbach, C., 2011. Physiological correlates and emotional specificity of human piloerection. Biological Psychology 86, 320-329.
Konečni, V.J., 2005. The aesthetic trinity: awe, being moved, thrills. Bulletin of Psychology and the Arts 5 (2), 27-44.
Panksepp, J., 1995. The emotional sources of ‘chills' induced by music. Music Perception 13, 171-207.