What are the 'tingles' we feel when listening to music?

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1. The tingles - what exactly's going on?

Music is a universal language - its appeal runs across the world in many cultures. In its various forms, music unites human beings in a uniquely pleasurable experience - like eating, sleeping, or sex - yet, of itself, it has no practical value.

Moreover, music is able to trigger physiological changes in the human body - most people report occasionally experiencing the 'tingles' when listening to music. So what is going on in our bodies and brains when we experience this (usually) pleasurable phenomenon?

2. Shivers down the spine

Music's relationship with our emotions reliably produces the 'tingles'; scientists have measured the physical effects, and why they happen.

Video produced by Nick Davey, Senior Graphic Designer, Visual Journalism, BBC News

Watch a short video to see what's going on in our bodies and brains when we experience the 'tingles'...

3. Where do the tingles come from?

The 'tingles' affect people differently ...

The ‘tingles’ are a personal experience: sad music is more likely to generate the effect than happy music, but the key is what each individual finds pleasurable – two people listening to the same piece of music will not necessarily share the same experience.

... and there's a connection to our ancestors ...

The centres of the brain which are involved in the effect are those of reward, motivation, planning, and emotion, but this activity can be translated into the physical and visceral – for example, singing, drumming or clapping along. This physical response is tied in to the development of language in humans, and social interactions going back to primitive cultures: and so, even the apparently personal, private experience of listening to music, still connects us socially to the musicians and other listeners.

4. What's going on inside the brain?

Click on the brain areas and find out how these parts contribute to the 'tingles' or 'chills' ...

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5. Getting the full-on tingles

The 'tingles' or 'chills' are the physiological outcome of a set of neurological processes which, as Professor Parsons explained in Step 3 of this iWonder Guide, have deep roots in human development and culture.

Watch Tom Service describe his personal experiences as he gets the full-on tingles while listening to the closing moments of Wagner's Gotterdammerung (Twilight of the Gods) - the redemptive climax of the cycle of four operas known as The Ring of the Nibelungen.

6. Vote - have you ever had the tingles?

Science tells us that 'most' people at some point experience the 'tingles' or 'chills' while listening to music. But how many is 'most?' You can vote by answering 'yes' or 'no' in this (non-scientific) vote ...

7. What can we learn from the tingles?

A considerable amount of research has been conducted into the 'tingles' or 'chills'. Do the learnings from the neuroscience have any practical applications?

Sensorimotor Activity

What this means

Get with the beat

Dancing to music or listening to a metronome-like beat can assist people with age- or disease-related walking and balance problems.

Speech and Language

What this means

Singing can help

Brain mechanisms for singing - eg singing one’s conversational speech - may aid some people whose speech areas in the brain are damaged.

Cognition

What this means

Spin-off effects

Non-musical skills such as hearing accuracy, short-term memory, and multi-tasking skills may be improved by studying to play a musical instrument.

Recovery of health

What this means

Music to get well by

Some scientific findings indicate that after surgery, patients may have more rapid recovery when allowed to listen to music of their choice.