The Brain on “Chilling” Music


In Audio Branding, I wrote about subtle uses of music to influence our behavior. Most of the uses of music for branding or sales enhancement are so subtle that listeners may not be consciously aware the music is even playing – it’s simply part of the environment. Indeed, it seems that subtlety is the goal of Muzak and others trying to create an auditory environment.

But what about the other end of the spectrum, music that is so powerful and engaging that it gives you chills? Researchers at McGill University have produced some interesting research:

A Canadian research group has found that pleasure centers in the brain that respond to drug craving are also active when we listen to emotionally powerful music that gives us “chills” or “shivers-down-the-spine”. Using two separate brain imaging tests the researchers examined subjects as they listened alternately to music that gave them chills and music that did not. Using a PET scan, the researchers showed that music that caused chills lead to a release of dopamine in the reward centers of the brain (mesolimbic striatum). Using fMRI on the same subjects, they found that activation in these regions happens both during the experience of chills and while subjects are anticipating them. Music, a mere sequence of notes arranged in time, can activate the same reward centers in the brain as drugs such as cocaine. [From The Rewarding Aspects Of Music Listening.]

(I wasn’t able to track down a link to the paper, but it appears to be this recent presentation: Salimpoor V.N., Benovoy M., Longo G., Larcher, K., Dagher, A., Cooperstock J.R., Zatorre R.J., “The Rewarding Aspects of Music Listening Involve the Dopaminergic Striatal Reward Systems of the Brain: An Investigation with [C11] Raclopride PET and fMRI”, The 15th Annual Human Brain Mapping Conference, San Francisco, 2009.)

It would be interesting to know what music produced these powerful rewards, and how that varied from subject to subject. Are there universally chilling pieces of music, or do we all have quite different preferences? If any Neuromarketing reader finds the paper, please let us all know what kind of music lights up our brains in this way.

Is there marketing potential for music so powerful it gives the listener chills? Most people don’t want, say, powering up their cell phone or computer to be overly emotionally engaging. However, if a marketer could suggest a known moving piece of music in a more subtle way, perhaps the listeners would be reminded of the more rewarding experience of hearing the full blown piece. For example, United Airlines never reproduces Gershwin’s entire Rhapsody in Blue in their ads, or even large portions of it. Nevertheless, the theme is so familiar that even a few seconds of the famous theme may be enough to produce a positive association with the entire piece. Take a look at the rather old 60-second United commercial below – do you think they have successfully captured enough of Rhapsody to provide some level of activation in the brain’s reward system? And, if so, does it transfer to their brand?

  1. Scott says

    Not sure if this is any better than what you have found, but page 47 has the abstract for the presentation.

    “Self-selected music was used as stimuli…”

  2. Richard says

    i am currently listening about how awesome and significant Blue Monday is, and how it still excites and delights me even after literally hundreds (thousands?) of times hearing it.

  3. Howard Weaver says

    In an industry trapped between selling commodities (cheapest seats A to B) and brands (why pick one airline over another) I think United’s marketing in general has been far above the industry average.

    The way that have used and stuck with Gershwin has established the music — certainly to me — as a United theme. They also aren’t afraid of artistic, high production value ads with a relatively soft sell.

    I don’t know if this is working for them — but it works for me.

    1. Roger Dooley says

      Thanks, Kirill!

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