The Quick Report

This Music Playlist Will Give You ‘Frisson’

What is a Frisson?

Deriving from French, the word frisson describes a sudden, strong feeling, especially of excitement or fear. It describes something we may experience while watching a film. For example, a frisson of seeing a character in mortal danger.

Synonyms that could be used to describe frisson are thrill or chill. The effect a frisson has on us is a shudder or shiver.

Another effect a frisson may produce is goosebumps or gooseflesh. Some researchers go so far as to describe it as a “piloerection” or “skin orgasm.” That’s because they compare the psychological and biological components of an orgasm.

Additional effects such as tears, a lump in the throat, or tension or relaxation of the muscles may also occur.

This effect can occur with visual stimuli, such as when viewing a beautiful painting or a brilliant sunset, according to a 2019 study. It can also occur when reading poetry or a particular scene in a film.

Surprisingly, music can have a frisson effect on us as well. This might be a sudden change in volume, the use of unexpected harmonies, or a startling passage by a soloist. 

However, frisson should not be viewed as having a negative effect but rather the opposite. A frisson violates the expectations of the viewer or listener in a positive way.

Anticipation and a violation of expectations

Psychologists and musicologists have various theories to explain why we experience powerful responses to music.


Watch the latest episode of 'A Swift Look' with host Zoe J!

Musicologist David Huron calls the effect “contrastive valence theory,” declaring that contrast strongly influences the feeling.

Another cause has to do with anticipation. Or what psychologists call “expectancy violations.” This might be changes in rhythm, melody, or harmonies that violate the norm or what is expected.

According to an article in Frontiers in Psychology, “some level of violated expectation may be a prerequisite” that is “strongly correlated to the onset of musical frisson.”

Songs that induce frisson

A team of neuroscientists who researched the phenomenon of frisson curated a playlist of 715 songs that are available on Spotify.

The list is surprisingly diverse, but the researchers say these are scientifically verified as likely to produce frisson or chills in the listener.

The artists include such disparate artists as Mozart, Metallica, Johnny Cash, and Celine Dion. 

Songs containing frisson-inducing moments include Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On,” Adele’s “Hello,” The Beatles’ “Twist & Shout,” and the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter.”

Frisson-generating musical movements

Mozart’s work also figured prominently. Music psychologists identified certain musical phrases that elicited frisson. In particular, chord progressions that descended the circle of fifths and resolved to the tonic. Such chord progressions are common in many of Mozart’s compositions.

The power of the human scream

A human scream has a powerful effect on us. As such, human screams are a staple of horror movies. Certain actresses are renowned for being “Scream Queens.” A particularly chilling scream is featured near the end of the Brian De Palma film “Blow Out,” starring John Travolta and Nancy Allen.

According to researchers, human screams are also a powerful element that, when combined with music, can induce musical frisson. Musicologist David Huron spoke extensively about musical frisson in his 2006 book Sweet Anticipation.

“The adult human scream displays a disproportionate amount of energy in the broad 0-6 kHz region, where human hearing is best,” Huron wrote. “A human scream is the sound humans can hear at the greatest distance.”

Screams have long been a part of popular music. Initially a part of blues music, screams were prominently featured in the work of rock ‘n’ roll pioneer Little Richard.

One of the most famous uses of musical screams occurs in Screaming Jay Hawkins’ “I Put a Spell on You.” Hawkins was literally nicknamed after his screaming vocal style. This would influence many other screamers in rock, such as John Fogerty of Creedence Clearwater Revival, who also covered Hawkins’ song.

In the Rolling Stones’ song “Gimme Shelter,” Merry Clayton’s screaming backing vocals are a prominent feature that pulls the listener into the song.

Janis Joplin remains one of the most powerful female vocalists of all time, largely due to her ability to improvise screaming blues runs.

Screams are the bread and butter of heavy metal music. The opening, bloodcurdling scream of Quiet Riot’s 1983 song Metal Health (Bang Your Head) gets the listener’s attention and heart pumping. The song is largely credited with paving the way for bringing heavy music back into the mainstream in the early 80s. Fans such as Deep Purple, Van Halen, Iron Maiden, and Queensryche, are but a few groups whose singers are known for hitting unexpected, powerful high notes clearly or with screams.