Psychologists have studied what’s happening when music gives us chills or makes us cry

Portrait of young Asian girl with tear rolling down cheek
Songs that provoked tears were considered sad and calm, whereas songs triggering chills were seen as a higher energy mix of happy and sad

By guest blogger Helge Hasselmann

Emotions can be fleeting and superficial, for example imagine the split-second of anger you experience after missing the bus. But other “peak emotional states” are more powerful and they are accompanied by intense physical reactions, such as crying or “the chills”. Often these physical manifestations accompany extreme fear or sadness, but they can also occur when we admire a magnificent sunset or enjoy a beautiful piece of music.

Now a study published in Scientific Reports by Kazuma Mori and Makoto Iwanaga has taken a closer look at the contrasting psychology and physiology underlying the chills and tears many of us experience when we’re profoundly moved by a song.

The researchers asked a group of 154 Japanese undergraduate students to estimate how often they experienced music-induced chills or tears. For this purpose, experiencing goose bumps or shivers was defined as chills, while tears were broadly understood as weeping or feeling a lump in the throat. Participants who had reported at least one such peak emotion in response to music were assigned to the chills or tear group, depending on what they had experienced more often. There were 32 students in the chills group, and 34 in the tears group. There was no difference between the groups in terms of musical experience, such as instrument or singing classes.

Next, the researchers asked each participant to name three songs that had already elicited tears or chills in them, and these were used in the next part of the study. All songs were Japanese pop/rock with lyrics, such as Hello Hello by Superfly, which elicited chills, and This Love by Angela Aki, which elicited tears. To control for non-emotional effects of songs (such as increased in tempo or pitch), the experimenters also picked three musically similar control songs.

Each participant then listened to their six individual songs in a sound-attenuated room while attached to psychophysiological instruments that measured their heart rate, breathing and sweating. Every time they experienced chills or tears, participants were instructed to perform a mouse click. They also gave real-time feedback on how they were feeling using a sliding scale on a computer. After each song, the participants indicated how strongly they had experienced peak emotions (tears or chills), whether these had been positive or negative and how excited or moved they were feeling. Also, they rated how the song was making them feeling in general (happy, sad, calm or fearful).

The study yielded some very interesting findings. For one, while all the self-picked emotional songs increased physiological arousal at first (faster heart rate, breathing and more sweating), there was a clear differentiation around the onset of peak emotion. As the researchers expected, chills were associated with increasing physiological arousal, whereas tears were associated with slower breathing and physiological calming. Contrary to the tears caused by situations of distress or grief, tears evoked by music in this study were associated with subsequent calming, with could be viewed as a release of tension. These results seem to support the idea that music-induced tears have a cathartic, relieving function.

Despite this difference in physiology, both chills and tears were experienced as pleasurable, although there were psychological differences as well. Songs that induced chills were perceived as a mix of happy and sad, while a song that evoked tears was generally considered sad. What is more, tear-inducing songs were generally rated as calmer than chills-inducing songs. Interestingly, the researchers showed that physiological changes were likely not a consequence of the musical characteristics of the songs. Rather, they suggested that physiological arousal and calming occurred as an inherent feature of whether the listener experienced chills or tears, respectively.

One of the main limitations of this study was that chills were not assessed in the tears group and vice versa. As previous studies have suggested that chills and tears can co-occur, it remains a possibility that some sad songs triggered both chills and tears. However, this study’s finding that music-induced tears and chills seem to reflect inherently different peak emotions would seem to argue against this possibility. Another potential problem was that emotional songs were familiar to the participants, which opens the doors to possible confounding. For example, songs might trigger emotional memories, which would mean that, rather than the song, a triggered memory was causing the crying or shivering.

And clearly, findings from Japan are not easily generalised to Western Europe, where emotions likely carry a different meaning.

So what’s the take-home message? The results give credit to the idea that tears, especially in moments of intense emotion in response to music, are not necessarily bad. Instead, they seem to offer relief by releasing tension, adding to past research that has attempted to find out why so many of us seem to enjoy listening to sad music. It will be interesting to see if these new findings can be replicated in a Western sample.

Two types of peak emotional responses to music: The psychophysiology of chills and tears

img_20150110_163732Post written for BPS Research Digest by Helge Hasselmann. Helge studied psychology and clinical neurosciences. Since 2014, he is a PhD student in medical neurosciences at Charité University Hospital in Berlin, Germany, with a focus on understanding the role of the immune system in major depression.

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