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Science Explains: why does live music give you goosebumps?

Ever wondered why live music gives you goosebumps? Have you ever had the “chills” when seeing your favourite artist live? Researchers think they may have cracked the science behind it – and they say it’s to do with the meaning of the song, and the volume at which it’s playing.

Harvard University researcher Matthew Sachs came to this conclusion after combining the results of his experiment with existing research on the same subject. In his controlled experiment, the heart rates and skin conductance of test participants were monitored as they listened to three of their favourite pieces of music. The intensity of lyrics, rising pitch, harmonic intervals and collective crowd singing emerged as the key factors in inducing goosebumps among the music listeners.

Researchers think they may have cracked the science behind it – and they say it’s to do with the meaning of the song, and the volume at which it’s playing

In fact, Sachs created an equation to calculate the percentage chance of getting goosebumps: P(goosebumps) = CF (Sc + Id+ Ap) . In this equation, CF refers to cognitive factors, Sc stands for the social and environmental context (such as collective experience), Id is the individual differences like engagement with the music, and Ap is the music’s acoustic properties, or the rapid change in volume.

Commenting on his findings, Sachs said: “Many studies have attempted to investigate what causes the emotion we feel while listening to music, but these have typically taken place in a lab setting.” He goes on to explain that “we’ve never before been able to explore how multiple factors influence the likelihood of experiencing goosebumps in a real-world context.”

Many studies have attempted to investigate what causes the emotion we feel while listening to music, but these have typically taken place in a lab setting

The study was carried out alongside a Barclaycard survey, with some particularly interesting results. The results showed that 70% of Brits think goosebumps are a marker of great live entertainment, but less than one in five understand where the psychological phenomenon comes from. It also emerged that the emotional effect of a live musical experience is enhanced by being among friends (41%), singing along with the crowd (41%), and watching your favourite artist perform (40%).

While 60% of Brits associate goosebumps with excitement, the new theory suggests that a personal connection to the song, a collective crowd experience, and a quick increase or decrease in volume are more important when it comes to ‘getting the chills’. Time of day is also thought to be important, with over half of survey respondents feeling more goosebumps past 17:00. And if you’re looking to experience the goosebumps for yourself, make sure you’re by the stage at 18:37 – this was calculated to be the optimum time to experience a goosebump-inducing moment. And there’s more good news for rockers: Rock music was voted the most likely to cause goosebumps, followed by Pop, Indie and House, with classical symphonies closing out the top five.

And if you’re looking to experience the goosebumps for yourself, make sure you’re by the stage at 18:37 – this was calculated to be the optimum time to experience a goosebump-inducing moment

Previous research by Sachs had concluded that those who feel goosebumps when listening to live music may have distinctive neurological pathways. Participants in this study that reacted to songs in this heightened manner, were found to have a higher volume of neurological fibres linking their auditory cortex to the emotion-processing part of their brain. However, with this new research, it seems as though there are many complex factors that may affect a person’s physiological reactions to live music, and it’s not solely reliant on neural structure.

This summer, Matthew Sachs and a team of researchers will be conducting a physiological study on-site at two UK music festivals. These tests will monitor and evaluate fans’ physical responses to music in a live festival setting, with qualitative metrics to measure their emotional responses. The results of these will be revealed by Barclaycard at a later time.

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