What is frisson and what role does it play in music?

12 August 2020
By Ellie Palmer
Breaking down the psychophysiological phenomenon

Ever get goose bumps when listening to a specific song or piece? There’s an explanation for that.




When does frisson occur?

The sensation usually occurs when our expectations as a listener are ‘violated’ in a positive way. For example, a sudden change in volume, an unexpected chord change, or a melody line you just didn’t see coming.

All of these changes in music can trigger frisson, causing goose bumps and quite often a shiver down your spine as well.


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What happens?

Let’s take volume as an example. Dopamine is released into our body when listening to music at any volume, but this is magnified when we crank the volume up above 90 decibels (the average volume of a pop concert).

When this happens, hedonic hotspots in our brain are triggered. These hotspots are responsible for the feeling of pleasure.

One group of Canadian researchers suggest that our brains behave as if reacting to delicious food, psychoactive drugs or money. We can certainly vouch for the example of delicious food!

Unexpected chord changes and melody lines are two of the other most popular causes of frisson. Both of these can stimulate our autonomic nervous system. Interestingly, this is the same system primarily in control of our fight-or-flight response.


Emotional contagion

This is another major trigger of frisson. Emotional contagion occurs not when our brains are triggered by the sound of the music, but by the way it makes us feel. When it happens, our bodies mimic (or synchronize) the feelings in the music. It normally happens unconsciously, but can happen consciously as well.

If you’ve ever felt sad when listening to a sad song, or absolutely euphoric when listening to an uplifting song, you will have experienced it!

Is there a specific piece of music – or section of music - that gives you goose bumps? Have you ever been to a live performance that has sent a shiver down your spine? Tweet us @pianistmagazine and share your experiences with us!


5 live piano performances to give you goose bumps


Kathia Buniatishvili - Claude Debussy: Clair de lune

Can you feel the tension in the room when Khatia plays those first few delicate notes? That was enough to give us goose bumps.

The piece beings to build in volume at 01:30. Play the video through your speakers and you'll pass the magical 90 decibel level.



Nobuyuki Tsujii – "Elegy for the Victims of the Tsunami of March 11, 2011 in Japan"

Emotions are high in this video. The Japanese pianist wrote the piece in memory of those who passed away during the 2011 Japanese Tsunami. He becomes visibly very upset during the performance. It's likely you will experience emotional contagion when viewing.



Nikolai Lugansky – Mozart Piano Concerto No. 24 in C minor

A stunning example of how a powerful orchestra can really make the hairs stand up on the back of your neck.



Evgeny Kissin – Rachmaninov Piano Concerto No 2

This concerto is surely one of Rachmaninov's most stunning pieces. Look out for the way the first set of chords grow in volume, as well as the gorgeous relationship between orchestra and piano.



Lang Lang – Bach: Goldberg Variations, BWV 988: Aria

Goldberg's variations explore all types of moods, taking you from one feeling to another. Lang Lang's playing raises it up another level.