Emotion in music, giving you the chills

Authors: Dennis Beentjes & Robin Reumers
Editor: Milou Derksen

Music is something special. Some call it a universal language, while others call it the window to the soul. In the earlier days, we would give mix-tapes (cassettes) to the ones we secretly liked or had a crush on, since words could not express our feelings. We used the emotion in music. And not much has changed. Tinder has a feature where you can share your favourite song, and Spotify has shareable playlists. Facebook introduced the “I’m listening to” option as a status update, and Instagram lets you share your favourite music in your stories. Nowadays, sharing music has become easier, and it’s quite evident that music has taken up an extremely important role. And for many people, and even brands, the music they relate to is an extension of themselves.

Music is a form of expression. It’s a way of telling a story, and research shows that music binds us in a way that language rarely does, making it almost a social glue. Most of us can relate that meeting someone with the same music taste is one of the best things, creating a deeper connection and in most cases, an emotional bond. But what makes music move us and stir up our deepest emotions? Which elements of music play a role in this interaction? In the last decades, neuroscience and cognitive psychology studies played a vital role to decipher the mysteries surrounding music and our emotions. With this blog article, we’ll explore emotion in music and want to give you an insight into some of the discoveries and help you to find ways to apply this to your music-making process. Get ready to stir up the emotions of your listeners.

mixtape abbey road

Music moves us

First, let’s have a closer look at our emotions. The word emotion comes from the Latin word ‘emovere‘, which means ‘to move, remove, agitate or stir up’. We can be “moved” by a piece of music, where ‘being moved’ describes our emotional state. When we try to express that internal movement, we use words like joy, sadness, anger, fear, disgust, surprise or love (and even more), which brings up a new question: are we talking about emotions or feelings?

Emotions and feelings are often used interchangeably, but they are slightly different. Feelings happen as we begin to integrate the emotion, start to think about it and “letting it soak in.” In English, “to feel” is used for both physical and emotional sensations. When we say we physically feel cold, we can also emotionally feel cold. Which is a clue to the meaning of “feeling,” it’s something we sense. Feelings are more “cognitively saturated” as the emotion chemicals are processed in our brain and body. A mix of emotions often fuels feelings, and most of the times, last longer than emotions.

“Without music, life would be a mistake.”

― Friedrich Nietzsche (Twilight of the Idols)

From a scientific approach, emotions are chemicals released in response to our interpretation of a specific trigger. This process usually takes a couple of seconds, where a sequence of sounds, interpreted by our brain as music, can be the trigger that evokes the emotion, bringing it to the conscious mind. It influences our thinking, behaviour, brings back memories and turns it into feelings. No wonder it’s sometimes hard to describe our feelings. We can barely grasp what happens in those split seconds, making it almost mysterious and powerful at the same time.

Knowing what comes next.

So what happens in those split seconds, when music enters our brain? Music has a lot of similarities with perception illusion, not to be confused with the optical ones. You’ve probably seen so-called optical illusions that use visual tricks to trigger certain assumptions within our human perception. However, a perceptual illusion is not an optical phenomenon, but rather a cognitive *) one.

To give you a better understanding, have a look at the picture below. If you haven’t seen this picture before, your eyes will scan around the dots. On a subconscious level, your mind brings up templates to match the patterns. And as soon as it finds a match, which can take several seconds or even minutes, the object “pops” out at you. (The answer you will find under the image). And the most interesting part is that once you see it, it’s there and you can’t “unsee” it.

dalmatian illusion

What’s interesting is that the visual stimulus (the picture) doesn’t change. Once your mind knows what kind of organization to impose, it’s evident that the object is there.

“When the scene is reencountered, sensory cues will again identify high information areas, but this time the prior knowledge needed to complete the perceptual act is readily available, and the perceptual interpretation is achieved in a way that seems automatic. One general lesson of this demonstration is that perception is not the result of simply processing stimulus cues. It also importantly involves fitting prior knowledge to the current situation to create a meaningful interpretation.”source (The Atlantic)

In short: what you know influences what you see.

With music, it’s the same. When receiving a sequence of sounds, the brain tries to impose structure and order and, in effect, creates an entirely new system of meaning, which translates into a pleasant and rewarding experience or an unpleasant one. When we ‘like’ or ‘appreciate’ a piece of music, it’s because of our ability to process the underlying structure and to predict what will occur next in the song. In other words, what makes music pleasant to us humans is the creation of expectations. And the more we listen to music, the more we fuel our music memory. In this case, what we know influences what we hear.

“Music can be thought of as a type of perceptual illusion in which our brain imposes structure and order on a sequence of sounds. Just how this structure leads us to experience emotional reactions is part of the mystery of music.”

Daniel Levitin (American-Canadian cognitive psychologist, neuroscientist, writer, musician, and record producer.)

It’s all in the rewards.

Research shows that this expectation or musical anticipation is the crucial element in activating the reward system in our brain, giving the listener a musical climax. Especially when it’s music we love, the brain releases dopamine while listening. Dopamine is a chemical messenger that plays a role in how we feel pleasure. It also helps us to think and plan, helping us strive, focus, and find things interesting.

Understanding how the brain translates a structured sequence of sounds – such as music – into a pleasant and rewarding experience, is a challenging and fascinating question. But what happens when the brain senses unexpected changes in the sequence of sounds (music)?

In this video, you’ll hear and see the difference for yourself (starting at 8:27).

Oh, and here is the the answer to the picture 🙂

But how does music evoke emotion?

Though it appears to be similar to features of our language, music is more rooted in the primitive brain structures. For most people, language is processed on the left side of the brain (the left hemisphere), and for a long time, it was thought that music has a more right-hemisphere bias. However, a closer look reveals that music activates many parts of our brain, including the so-called limbic system of the brain, which is involved in motivation, emotion, learning, and memory.

In fact, music is now known to stimulate almost every part of the brain. Researchers in Finland were capable of recording the brain responses of individuals listening to a piece of music while analysing the musical content like the rhythmic, tonal and timbral components over time. Here is what they discovered:

“Comparison of the brain responses and […] musical features revealed many interesting things.
The researchers found that music listening recruits not only the auditory areas of the brain but also employs large-scale neural networks. For instance, they discovered that the processing of musical pulse recruits motor areas in the brain, supporting the idea that music and movement are closely intertwined. Limbic areas of the brain, known to be associated with emotions, were found to be involved in rhythm and tonality processing. Processing of timbre (the character or quality of a musical sound or voice as distinct from its pitch and intensity) was associated with activations in the so-called default mode network, which is assumed to be associated with mind-wandering and creativity.” The study was published in the journal NeuroImage.

To get a better understanding of how music relates to our emotions, we take a closer look at two of its most intense psychological reactions: memory and chills.

Music and memories

The relationship between music and memory is compelling. Songs from the past can stir powerful emotions and memories. It’s an experience almost everybody can relate to: hear a piece of music from decades ago, and you are transported back to a particular moment in time, like stepping into a time machine. You can feel everything very strongly, as if you were actually there.

There are different kinds of memory, including explicit and implicit memory, which involve different parts of the brain. Explicit memories are simple memories, often posed by questions like; what did you do 5 minutes ago? Where were you last summer? Who were you travelling with? It’s basically a conscious retrieval of the past. Implicit memories, however, are memories stored in the unconscious and are a more reactive form of memory. Yet, they can still be retrieved by our conscious mind and usually last longer than explicit memories. The key to this long-lasting memory capability is that they are generally attached to a specific emotion.

To give you an example: I remember my favourite band playing a surprise gig when I was 16 years old because I was extremely happy and paired that strong emotion with a particular song. That event happened over 20 years ago, yet in a week time, I probably won’t remember what I had for lunch today since I have no strong emotion paired to me eating a tuna sandwich.

beatles greatest hits

Another research-based theory says that music evokes memories because it is related to movement. Participants got an MRI as they listened to music, and the researchers found that certain parts of the brain (the cerebellum and cerebrum) that involve our motor abilities were stimulated while listening to music. Along with the stimulation of the limbic system in the brain, which controls emotions, it proves how music, emotion, and movement are all interconnected. It might also explain why I was biking across the canals of Amsterdam, felt extremely happy, and was listening to the song, and can now perfectly recall that moment to this day.

More revealing facts about music and memories can be found here

Music gives you chills.

Earlier, we spoke about music pleasure, which occurs when you, or actually your brain, knows what’s coming next while listening to a song. And when your playlist strikes all the right chords, the rise of dopamine can take your body on a physiological joyride by increasing your heart rate, body temperature rising, redirecting blood to your legs and activate the mission control centre for body movement. However, the ultimate climax happens when the brain flushed with dopamine triggers a tingly sensation down your back — the so-called ‘chills’.

What makes this extra interesting, is that those dopamine levels that causes the chills can peak several seconds before the song’s special moment. It’s is because of the predicting features of the brain, which evolutionarily speaking, it’s a handy habit to have since making good predictions is essential for survival.

These sensations also stimulate our motivation system; making us enjoying a piece of music, deriving pleasure from it, wanting to listen to it again and being willing to spend money for it. It almost sounds like a drug. Research shows that music, it seems, may affect our brains the same way that sex, gambling, and chocolate do. But we guess you already knew that.

But did you know that about 50 per cent of people gets chills when listening to music? 50 per cent! “A study, carried out by PhD student Matthew Sachs at the University of Southern California, has revealed that people who get chills from music might have structural differences in their brain.” “The study also found that people who are open to experience, as well as people who have more musical training, are more likely to report strong emotional responses.”

“The most powerful chills occur when our expectations are being met, and the reward system in our brain becomes more active.” That ties back to the dopamine-inducing guessing game our brain likes to play.” As a result, being familiar can enhance the thrill of the chill.” But music is tricky. It can be unpredictable, teasing our brains and keeping those dopamine triggers guessing. The greater the build-up, the greater the chill. Perhaps that’s why 90 per cent of musicians report feeling chills.

We love chills. You can read more about chills through and

So now you have a better understanding of your brain on music, why music evokes emotions and why you get goosebumps while listening to Buzzfeeds Spotify Playlist. If you are one of those 50 per cent that is.

Next month part 2 of this article…

…where we will give you more insights and practical tips on how to evoke emotion through your music!

Want to know more about our brain on music? Check these two videos below.

How does music affect our brain (through Wired)

Predicting music (through World Science Festival)


*) Cognitive: of, relating to, being, or involving conscious intellectual activity (such as thinking, reasoning, or remembering).


This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession by Daniel J. Levitin


Image by ElisaRiva from Pixabay