Using PET to measure the “chills” response to music

“Intensely pleasurable responses to music correlate with activity in brain regions implicated in reward and emotion.”

By Anne J. Blood* and Robert J. Zatorre at Montreal Neurological Institute, McGill University (2001)

Also in “Berklee Today”, by Sarah Godcher:

“Results of the chills study also showed decreased activity in the areas of the brain that process danger and anxiety. “This says to me,” continued Blood, “that in order to experience this kind of euphoria, the part of the brain [that responds to danger] has to shut down. You can’t be euphoric and scared at the same time.”

The study also revealed that the brain processes consonant and dissonant sounds in very different ways. Dissonant sounds affected areas of the brain involving memory and anxiety, while consonant sounds stimulated areas involved in pleasant emotional responses. The results of Blood’s study may be validating through science what composers and performers of music have known for centuries.

Blood hastened to add that music’s ability to produce the chills is entirely subjective. All 10 of the subjects in the study selected classical music, but jazz and rock also can affect listeners just as powerfully, she said. Proof of this subjectivity can be found in a person’s response to music they did not select themselves. As each individual listened to a piece of music selected by one of the other nine subjects, “no one responded similarly to someone else’s music,” Blood said.

A significant aspect of Blood’s findings is that almost all of the brain’s response to music takes place at the subcortical level, that is in nerve centers below the cerebral cortex, which is the region of the brain where abstract thought occurs. Our brains process music, therefore, without really thinking about it. “It looks like the emotional part of music is getting at something more fundamental than cognition,” Blood explained.”