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Music and Pleasure

A recent post on the BBC website provocatively named the “chills” induced by pleasurable music listening as “skin orgasms” in its headline. Drawing this kind of link between musical pleasure and other kinds of pleasure may at first come off as a click-bait, but it actually is backed up by scientific research.

In one of the seminal studies in the neuroscience of music, published in 2001, experience of chills and pleasure during music listening was connected to activation of a system in the brain that is also activated by other types of pleasurable stimuli: good food, drugs, and yes, sex.  Research describes certain characteristics of music pieces like sudden peaks in loudness, expectancy violations and the buildup of tension and its release as common routes to chills. A few years ago, a paper published in the journal Nature connected the release of the neurotransmitter dopamine to peak emotions as well as anticipation of peak emotions during music listening. It is not surprising that this pattern of expectation, tension and release may bring sexual pleasure to mind for some.

The BBC article interviews Psyche Loui and refers to a review written in 2014 by her and Luke Harrison. In this article they review literature on what they call transcendent psycho-physiological moments in music. The variety of literature surrounding these peak experiences of music-induced pleasure shows how versatile the phenomenon actually is. Emotions and pleasure are different for every human being, even though the neural underpinnings might be the same. For instance, musical pleasure is influenced by subjective emotional associations to the music as well and  the personal ‘musical lexicon’ that an individual has acquired, which creates the setting for expectations and experiences of surprise, tension, and release. 

In future investigations, the writers call for a broader perspective on the types of music that may elicit these experiences, the different contextual factors that may influence them as well as individual differences in unique experiences of peak pleasure. The Sync Project aims to respond to needs such as this with its platform: by generating more information on the variety of contexts of music listening, and the connection between different types of music and musical genres and individual physiological responses.

written By Marko Ahtisaari and Ketki Karanam



Blood, A. J., & Zatorre, R. J. (2001). Intensely pleasurable responses to music correlate with activity in brain regions implicated in reward and emotion. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 98(20), 11818–11823. doi:10.1073/pnas.191355898

Harrison, L., & Loui, P. (2014). Thrills, chills, frissons, and skin orgasms: toward an integrative model of transcendent psychophysiological experiences in music. Front. Psychol., 5. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2014.00790

Salimpoor, V. N., Benovoy, M., Larcher, K., Dagher, A., & Zatorre, R. J. (2011). Anatomically distinct dopamine release during anticipation and experience of peak emotion to music. Nat Neurosci, 14(2), 257–262. doi:10.1038/nn.2726