Why Music Gets Us High, Naturally

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It’s a sunny, 73 degree day in early June. You’re driving down Lake Shore Drive with the windows down. The wind is ruffling your hair just perfectly and you’re cutting through the lanes like a hot knife through butter. The radio is tuned to yours truly when that one song comes on. You know the one, the one that makes all the hairs on the back of your neck stand as straight as arrows, your arms and legs chilly with goosebumps and a chill that feels like an ice cube dropped down your back. What is it about this one song that gives you such an involuntary reaction? Why are our brains programmed to release a natural high when we hear music we love?

Dr. Vicky Williamson, a Lecturer in Music Psychology at Goldsmiths University, has examined a study by Valarie Salimpoor and her colleagues from McGill (Canada) to better understand this phenomenon. According to Williamson, the first musical instruments (that we know of) were created about 40,000 years ago. If our ancestors experienced this chill-reaction from music, yet it has no purpose for physical human survival, why has it stuck around?

From the study, Salimpoor found that first of all, there is no certain formula for “the chill.” This could explain why I might get it from those opening notes of M83’s “Midnight City” (every damn time) and my Mom gets it from Brandi Carlile’s “That Wasn’t Me,” yet neither of us get it from the other.

Second, the study found activity in “an ancient, centrally based brain system called the dopaminergic reward pathway,” which was “flushed with the brain-pleasing neurotransmitter ‘dopamine’ just before and during musical chills” (Williamson).

Last but not least, it explains why “that one song” sends the same rewarding messages that are usually meant for survival.

“We typically experience this type of brain response to biologically rewarding stimuli; things that help us survive, like sex and high fat foods. Modern music does not really help us survive so it is effectively piggy-backing on this reward brain system” (Williamson).

Basically, we’re tricking our brain into giving us those rewarding feelings that are meant for survival and using them for that natural music high. Seems like a very juvenile thing to do. It’s like spending half of your grocery money on records. And it must be why they got grouped together so nicely, that is, “sex and drugs and rock ‘n’ roll.”

So there you have it. “The chill” is your brain being outsmarted by, well, your brain. Music may not be necessary for survival biologically speaking, but in just about every other facet of life, I beg to differ.


Songs That Give You Goose Bumps! [Playlist]

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