Thursday, November 18, 2010

The Science Of Djing- Music Chills and Pop Cycles

(Original Link -

Ever wondered why you get chills when listening to music? Perhaps you might have suspected cycles of pop music seem to follow economic cycles. Well, writer Yale Fox has an entire blog dedicated to studying the “science of nightlife culture” called Darwin Vs The Machine that has looked at both subjects. In today’s article he goes into the chill theory and why popular music may pick up in pace as the economy slows down.

Have you ever listened to a song that’s given you shivers? The pleasant feeling of chills running up your spine are actually called Frissons. What is it about music that induces this feeling? I listened to this lecture by Dr. David Huron that discussed his theory behind it.

Biologically, chills are called piloerection. They are characterized by a pleasurable, cold sensation which sometimes produces a shudder. Chills are something we can normally experience based on certain stimuli.  At the core, these chills exhibit themselves as a result of surprise. It is the failure for the organism to predict their environment and what is going to happen next. The neurotransmitters released during this type of response are catecholamines; epinephrine (adrenaline) and dopamine. This brief and pleasurable scare is equivalent to the reason we enjoy rollercoasters and watch horror films.
Here are some other examples of when we experience these frissons.
  • Stepping in to a warm bathtub
This is a classic example of the organism not being able to predict their environment. The body feels a sudden change in temperature and reacts by eliciting the fight or flight response.
  • Nails on a chalkboard, or a loud scream
It comes as a surprise again, and is usually a sign of warning or help from another member of our species. Whether running to help, or running for safety it’s an indication that something unexpected is occurring in the environment.


A large part of music that we enjoy is the balance between predictability and unpredictability. This is probably a good way to think about track selection for your DJ sets, trying to put yourself somewhere in between predictable and unpredictable place. Perhaps adding an interesting effect or unique twist on a familiar track would be enough to induce that wonderful chill we associate with a great musical moment.

Personally, the only music that really gives me chills is lyrically based. More specifically, Punchlines and complex verses. This still fits the theory, as usually these lines are totally witty and unexpected. There’s no way of really predicting the verse before you hear it. The fact that it is a heightened emotional response means it likely becomes imprinted for future reference. Additionally, if I know the words to the song- I find I don’t get chills when I hear it again.

Virtually impossible to conduct a lab, different people are surprised at different times. I think the best thing to do is put this up to open debate. If readers could post their comments and suggestions- or specific songs and points in the song where they experienced chills.


I took a database of every song that has ever touched ground on the billboard top 100 charts since 1955-2009. Songs were analyzed and sorted in terms of two important characteristics; (i) tempo and (ii) modality. Tempo is measured in beats-per-minute, and is the general speed of the song. Modality or mode refers to whether or not the song is in a Major or Minor key. Major keys sound happy, and Minor keys sound sad- even an untrained ear is able to easily detect this.


60Hz said...

minor sad and major happy has been proven a cultural thing not a biological thing - (so no an untrained ear will not necessarily agree with you) but kudos for the rest of the article... there is a good Nat Geo documentary on Music and the Brain (but i forgot what it's called - its on netflix CHEK IT!)

willimek said...

Music and Emotions

The most difficult problem in answering the question of how music creates emotions is likely to be the fact that assignments of musical elements and emotions can never be defined clearly. The solution of this problem is the Theory of Musical Equilibration. It says that music can't convey any emotion at all, but merely volitional processes, the music listener identifies with. Then in the process of identifying the volitional processes are colored with emotions. The same happens when we watch an exciting film and identify with the volitional processes of our favorite figures. Here, too, just the process of identification generates emotions.

An example: If you perceive a major chord, you normally identify with the will "Yes, I want to...". The experience of listening to a minor chord can be compared to the message conveyed when someone says, "No more." If someone were to say these words slowly and quietly, they would create the impression of being sad, whereas if they were to scream it quickly and loudly, they would be come across as furious. This distinction also applies for the emotional character of a minor chord: if a minor harmony is repeated faster and at greater volume, its sad nature appears to have suddenly turned into fury.

Because this detour of emotions via volitional processes was not detected, also all music psychological and neurological experiments, to answer the question of the origin of the emotions in the music, failed.

But how music can convey volitional processes? These volitional processes have something to do with the phenomena which early music theorists called "lead", "leading tone" or "striving effects". If we reverse this musical phenomena in imagination into its opposite (not the sound wants to change - but the listener identifies with a will not to change the sound) we have found the contents of will, the music listener identifies with. In practice, everything becomes a bit more complicated, so that even more sophisticated volitional processes can be represented musically.

Further information is available via the free download of the e-book "Music and Emotion - Research on the Theory of Musical Equilibration:

or on the online journal EUNOMIOS:

Enjoy reading

Bernd Willimek, music theorist

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