This Is What It Feels Like

To be alive!


It’s 2006. I’m on the school bus listening to my iPod, when on comes Johnny Cash’s ‘Hurt.‘ The song begins softly, a wistful Cash singing of loss and regret over sparse acoustic plucking.”

“As a freshman in high school, I know nothing of the song’s mature themes of aging and death. But about halfway through the song, something happens. The guitar and piano increase in volume, and Cash’s voice starts to crescendo. I feel the hairs stand on the back of my neck. A warm shiver runs up my spine, and goosebumps appear on my arms. It feels like something important is happening. I don’t know what exactly. But something is coming.”

“And the moment I expect the song will decrescendo, as it had in the previous chorus… It doesn’t. Cash’s voice wails over a pounding piano and guitar that threatens to blow out my headphones.

Suddenly, my body is seized by a rapturous electricity; my mind is invigorated by an indescribable fusion of ecstasy, awe, despair, and longing. And in an instant, I realize something deep in my bones: This is what it feels like to be alive.”

There is a word that describes this common human response to music — a word for “that moment” when a song pierces your body and soul. It’s called “frisson,” and it’s the reason why music from artists as seemingly disparate as Johnny Cash, Metallica, Céline Dion, and Mozart are all featured on a recently released, scientifically-backed playlist of songs that researchers claim are likely to give people “chills.” The 715-song playlist was curated by a team of neuroscientists and is available on Spotify.

“According to an article in Frontiers in Psychology, “Expectancy violations (e.g., harmonic, rhythmic, and/or melodic violations) are strongly correlated to the onset of musical frisson, such that some level of violated expectation may be a prerequisite.” 

We’ve shared before that surprise, violating listener expectations, is a key to creating delight.

It’s unclear to me if each of the 715 songs “curated by neuroscientists” affect every listener, or if we each have songs that bring on frisson to us uniquely.

If the songs produce frisson universally, how cool would it be to schedule one and drop it in unexpectedly?

You can read the article in BigThink HERE.