Mental Health

I Got The Music In Me: The 'Chills' You Get From Great Music Surprisingly Similar To Orgasm

Woman recording song
The physical sensations felt after listening to your favorite song are so powerful they can evoke a “skin orgasm.” Photo courtesy of Shutterstock

When you hear your favorite song on the radio, you have the impulse to bob your head, tap your foot, or even start dancing as you feel you do have the music in you. The intense melodies and harmonies that trigger these physical responses have been comparable to experiencing an orgasm during sex. According to a study published in the journal Frontiers, from chills to thrills, listeners of certain genres can have “skin orgasms,” also known as “frissons,” — produce powerful sensations throughout the body.

The pleasurable experience of listening to music is captured by moving listeners to tears and to orgasms. During a music session, the release of dopamine — a neurotransmitter in the brain associated with rewards from pleasures like food, drugs, and sex — is what helps establish the emotional responses felt in music, according to a 2011 study published in the journal Nature Neuroscience. PET and fMRI brain imaging techniques found dopamine release is greater for pleasurable versus neutral music, as the levels of release are linked to how emotionally arousing and pleasurable it is.  

Psyche Loui, a musician and psychologist at Wesleyan University, and her student Luke Harrison believe these transcendent psychophysiological moments termed by "chills," "thrills," and "frissons" do exist in music. The musician became interested in musical frissons after she experienced deep physical sensations while listening to Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2 back in college. "The aesthetic experience can be so intense that you can’t do anything else," Loui told the BBC .

In an effort to explain the phenomenon, the researchers conducted a review of several studies containing evidence surrounding the physical response listeners have to music. In one study, researchers monitored the participants’ physical reaction as they listened to their favorite songs while under an fMRI scanner that kept track of their brain activity. At least 80 percent of the participants exhibited a physical reaction to the music, including feeling shivers down the spine, laughter, tears and even a lump in their throat.

Loui and Harrison also found harmony changes, such as going from soft to loud, or “melodic appoggiaturas,” do bring notable changes in the brain. Intense reactions for music genres like pop and folk music was linked to a release of dopamine in the brain. "You see a similar response when people take drugs or have sex, which may explain why we find shiver-inducing songs so addictive," Loui said.

“Skin orgasms” can occur in both professional musicians and non-musicians. In a 1991 study published in the journal Psychology of Music, half of the respondents were found to experience trembling, flushing, and sweating, and sexual arousal when listening to their favorite songs, including a shiver down their spine. These experiences provide sustainable evidence that there are psychophysiological reactions that occur when the brain processes these sounds.

Loui and Harrison emphasize these responses are different for each individual and do not necessarily lead to an “orgasm.” “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,” Loui and Harrison wrote in the journal.

This explains why your feelings for a song you hear regularly become more powerful. Although the sense of surprise is lost, you become conditioned to feel the frisson. Now, the music becomes rewarding as part of your life experiences.

Music serves to help individuals exercise their emotional communication. It’s the world’s universal language that can help bond people together socially, emotionally, and physically.

Sources: Harrison L and Loui Psyche. Thrills, chills, frissons, and skin orgasms: toward an integrative model of transcendent psychophysiological experiences in music. Frontiers in Psychology. 2014.

Benovoy M, Dagher A, Longo G et al. Anatomically distinct dopamine release during anticipation and experience of peak emotion to music. Nature Neuroscience. 2011.

Sloboda JA. Music Structure and Emotional Response: Some Empirical Findings. Psychology of Music. 1991.

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