Chilling effect

Music is one of those First-Article gifts that we know is of special interest to many of our readers. It has the wonderful quality of being bland in its ubiquity while also containing complexities and mysteries which lure some to spend a lifetime studying it. 

Music can cause lumps in throats, tears or laughter, but neuroscientists in London wanted to study a very particular reaction induced by music – frisson, the “sudden feeling…of excitement, emotion or thrill”. Basically, they wanted to investigate why some music gives us chills.

The team compiled a playlist of songs as part of their study. They included songs across diverse styles and time periods and from around the world which they say can create frisson. So now we know why a gorgeous vocal arrangement, or the warm rasp of a cello, a triumphant crescendo, sad lyrics or even the squelchy sounds of a vintage 303 can give you gooseflesh, right? Not so much. 

While a number of studies have been conducted into the effect music has on us, the lens through which it is examined is usually an evolutionary one. A study from 2019 suggests that when music changes in an unexpected way, our “fight or flight” response, evolved to warn of threats kicks in. That’s the best they’ve got so far.

There may be nothing spiritual about chills down your spine, but it is kind of satisfying for a Mad Christian when you find a genuine mystery in this world of rationality and science. Beauty is one of those things Darwin’s “survival of the fittest” can’t account for. After all, what “evolutionary advantage” could it have given to humanity?

Researchers say we can experience frisson when observing the brilliance of a setting sun, looking at beautiful artwork or realizing a deep truth. Truth. Perhaps that’s why sometimes when you’re singing a familiar hymn, it catches you by surprise. Not everyone gets chills but in some ways, the saving plan of Jesus is always unexpected, a surprise, to poor miserable sinners. Singing the words: “God’s own child, I gladly say it” or “The prince of darkness grim – One little word shall fell him” will definitely have a chilling effect on your fears and thrill your soul.

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