We listen to music during sleeping, working, making love. We know why, but we are not able to explain what is happening to our minds and bodies while listening to that song again and again. We are slaves to the earworm. This is the essence of the musical experience.

Thrills, chills, frissons, and skin orgasms: toward an integrative model of transcendent psychophysiological experiences in music is an article on Frontiers in Psychology by Luke Harrison and Psyche Loui from Department of Psychology at Wesleyan University, reporting a study on current multidisciplinary literature (cognitive neuroscience, phenomenology, psychology and ethnomusicology) in order to properly define those transcendent psychophysiological moments that music is causing during the listening experience.

Some terms were proposed to describe this phenomenon in academic research, such as: chills, thrills, skin orgasms and frisson.

But while chills and thrills are often described by participants in studies in relation to the listening of sad or happy music, the other two terms result more correct to describe this multilayered emotion.

Skin orgasm is defined as:

“a pleasurable sensation that is paradoxically both universal and variable. It affects different parts of the body depending on the person and circumstances of induction, and retains similar sensory, evaluative, and affective biological and psychological components to sexual orgasm”.

Frisson is defined as:

“a musically induced affect that shows close links to musical surprise and is associated with a pleasant tingling feeling, raised body hairs, and gooseflesh”.

Whether you call this phenomenon, researchers report this is not only a mental state with a correlated psychophysiological element, but it depends upon social context. Indeed this emotional response to music is triggered because of our habits, cultural model and social needs. Do you remember spiritual ecstasy induced in Gospel sessions or during music listening by North Indian and Pakistani Sufis?

Indeed from body perceptions this emotional thrill can provoke tears, lump-in-the-throat sensations, muscles tension as well as relaxation.

Evolutionary theories consider music as a transformative technology of the mind: people started using human-made sounds as a way to communicate each other, then music evolved by itself, becoming an augmented auditory experience.

We are potentially ready to achieve that frisson every time we listen to some specific musical elements, such as: a chord progression descending the circle of fifths to the tonic, a melodic appogiatura, an unexpected harmony, and obviously melodic or harmonic sequences.

Future studies in science of music will have to examine the experiences generated by diverse music genres as well as cultural contexts.

So at the end, which is the song provoking your next skin orgasm?

[Photo: Flickr user Alessandro Saponi]

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Gianpaolo D'Amico

Editor-in-chief at sounDesign
Gianpaolo D'Amico is an independent creative technologist for digital media. He is the founder of sounDesign and a music obsessed since he was 0 years old.