Does music give you the shudders, make you cry? Your brain may be wired differently than others.

Matthew Sachs, a PhD candidate at the University of Southern California (USC), wondered why some of his friends said they “got the chills” when they listened to music.

One friend told Sachs: “I sort of feel that my breathing is going with the song, my heart is beating slower and I’m feeling just more aware of the song – both the emotions of the song and my body’s response to it.”

A 1995 researcher said some music-listeners feel: “a lump in the throat, feeling moved and the experience of chills: the tingling sensation on the scalp, back of the neck and spine that is often accompanied by goose bumps.”

Sachs liked music, but it just didn’t move him that way.

To the extreme, there are about one to five percent of people who dislike music, according to a study by the University of Barcelona. It’s a condition that’s so rare it’s called “musical anhedonia”. Anhedonia is the “inability to feel pleasure in normally pleasurable activities”.

Sachs, who studies psychology and neuroscience at USC’s Brain and Creativity Institute, selected 20 participants in the Boston area. Depending on the ways they reacted to music, he placed ten of them in the “chill” group, and the remainder in the “no-chill” group.

Sachs then photographed their brain activity while participants listened to six musical excerpts, and he rated their reactions to the music.

The researcher found that people who are affected by music actually have structural differences in the brain. They have a higher volume of fibers that connect their auditory cortex to the areas associated with emotional processing, which means the two areas closely interconnect. (The more nerve fibers you have connecting one area to another, the more the stimuli from that area pass on to the other.)

For the moment, Sachs applies his study to music. Although you could, he said, as readily apply results to movies, ballets, dance, performance sports, art, any other aesthetic that gives you the “chills”. You’d have to image a different cortical area.

This study ties in nicely with the whole Philosophy of Aesthetics, where for years — starting with the ancient Greeks — our wisest men have wondered why people lap up art.

It’s your brain, after all.




Sachs, M. E., Ellis, R. J., Schlaug, G., & Loui, P. (2016). Brain connectivity reflects human aesthetic responses to music. Social cognitive and affective neuroscience, 11(6), 884-891.