It raises the hair on the back of your neck, your pulse quickens and all of a sudden: goose bumps on your arms. These physiological responses, which accompany intense feelings of fear or exhilaration are called frisson and this past Monday, David Huron of Ohio State University came to Grinnell to lecture on how music can be a trigger.

Professor Huron answers a question during his talk on frisson, Monday. Photograph by Joey Brown

Huron drew a distinction between frisson and music-induced frisson, claiming that not everyone experiences frisson when listening to music. Those who do, however, often consider themselves “music lovers,” which Huron says might lead them to pursue careers in music.

Frisson originated as a thermo-regular response to retain heat, but had the additional beneficial effects of making one appear larger. This could help ward off a predator or intimidate an opponent during an aggressive encounter. But why does it occur when listening to music?

Human physiology is key to understanding this question. The human ear canal has a resonance of 3000-4000 Hz (kilohertz). A scream, which is essentially a distress call, produces the same resonance. The human ear is built to pick up a scream and it causes an immediate reaction in the listener: frisson.

But what do screams and music have in common? In order to discover what causes frisson, Huron examined seven elements of music that could explain this visceral, embodied reaction. The seven qualities were loudness, volume, pitch, infrasound, scream, proximity and approach, and surprise.

Some of these clearly relate to an evolutionary adaptation; if a sound is loud and close, it might indicate a threatening situation and one would experience frisson because the brain is triggering the body to fight or flight.

In music, however, frisson relies on a contrastive affect, an unexpected outcome. An example Huron brought up was subito forte, a change from soft to loud. Subito forte represents an unexpected outcome: the body was not expecting such a dramatic shift and thus reacts in the same way it would to a threat, by exciting the amygdala.

The amygdala is that part of the brain which facilitates fear signals. During a scary movie, when you’re on the edge of your seat and the killer pops out of the closet, the amygdala is the part of your brain telling you to freak out. The cortex on the other hand, inhibits the signals the amygdala sends out, essentially telling it to chill.
Another interesting example included Huron’s analysis of an opera singer’s technique. The singers are trained to drop their larynx to produce a cavity between their larynx and vocal cords that have the same resonance as a scream. Essentially, their singing is designed to induce physically rooted emotional reactions.

Huron theorizes that frisson depends on the listener’s susceptibility to experience fear. Evidence for this claim includes that those who feel frisson are more often not adventurous thrill seekers and more “thin skinned.” And despite its complexity, music induced frisson is essentially a fear response.

Frisson is reliable, Huron claimed, because it is related to a sense that is not subject to habituation: fear. Though there are exceptions, hearing a scream in the middle of the night will always produce a visceral reaction, fear, from a person.

Huron further explained that musical passages can produce a variety of reactions from people, which includes not only frisson but also tonic immobility.

Some animals exhibit tonic immobility, the inability to move, in response to threats. Dogs, for example, will sometimes roll over on their back to show that they cannot move and are essentially defenseless. In people, this reaction can be seen when a passage of music “takes ones breath away.”

Even so, no two people respond to a piece of music in the same way. Everyone has a different evolutionary adaptation, which pays homage to the biological principle of diversity. Those who experience frisson aren’t just yakking it up when music brings tears to their eyes or causes goose bumps; they are experiencing a physical reaction beyond their conscious control.

Huron explores an evolutionary adaptation that a cultural one, music, has found a way to excite. His work contemplates what drives people to make music and what brings us back to our favorite tunes again and again, providing a further understanding as to just what constitutes humanity.