Who feels chills while listening to music? People “open to experience”

Do you ever experience chills while listening to music? Recently, scientists have gotten interested in this question, and they’ve found some fascinating stuff. While most people experience chills some of the time, a small minority experience them very frequently — and about 10% say they never feel chills.

What accounts for the difference? Is it based in the type of music you listen to — like punk or country or hip-hop? Or the type of person you are? Or maybe some complex combination of the two — i.e. maybe the type of people who listen to, say, mainstream pop are also the type of people most likely to feel chills in the presence of art they heavily dig?

To try and figure it out, Emily C. Nusbaum (a scientific name that totally freaked me out because it’s almost precisely that of my wife) and Paul J. Silvia decided to survey 196 students at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. They asked them how often they felt chills while listening to music; then they profiled their personalities using the “big five” scale (i.e. how they scored on measures of neuroticism, extraversion, openness to experience, agreeableness, and conscientiousness). And finally they asked the students to describe how much they liked or hated various types of music based on the way music is categorized in the STOMP scale — which, for example, slots classic and folk music as “Reflective and Complex”, and rock and metal as “Intense and Rebellious”. (I kind of cracked up reading those STOMP categories. I mean, sure, yeah, technically Rachmaninoff is classical music — but it’s easily more “Intense and Rebellious” than, god save us, Nickelback. Meanwhile, Pachabel’s Canon, having become the go-to processional music for about seven trillion weddings, has been taxidermically drained of any serious reflective value. Anyway …)

The point is, once they crunched their data, no music genre trumped. There is no particular type of music you can listen to that will reliably impart chills. The truly big predictor? Your personality. Specifically, how open you are to experience — because this affects how frequently and deeply you engage with music. People who are more open to experience are also likely to interact with music in specifically intense ways:

In particular, rating music as more important, listening to music for more hours per day, and playing an instrument significantly predicted aesthetic chills.

Intuitively, this makes sense. Yet when I think about it, my own experience of music doesn’t really dovetail with these findings. I don’t know how high I score on measures of openness — I’ve never had myself tested — but I’ve played instruments most of my life (daily, in fact); I listen to music every day; but I don’t think I often experience chills.

Personally, I’d love for some researchers to do some even more ambitious research into chills. Why no trick out hundreds (thousands!) of listeners with software MP3 players for smartphones that lets then easily record precisely when you feel chills while listening to music. That way, you could capture what exact song provoked the chills — better yet, what passage in what song — as well as physically where you were located, what time of day, what else you were doing, and probably a bunch of other easily loggable data points.

The paper appears the October issue of Social Psychological and Personality Science, and is free online here!

(That photo is courtesy the Creative-Commons-licensed Flickr photostream of marimoon!)

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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