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Here in North America it's the time of year that we have a little more jingle in our bells than usual, but luckily there's a lot of science to explain exactly why music mistles our toes the way it does.

Hosted by: Olivia Gordon

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Olivia: It's that time of year when, like it or not, holiday music is being piped into every mall, grocery store, and gas station.  If you're sick of it, sorry, I wish I could help.  What I can do is shed a bit of light on the science of music. 
    See, we here at SciShow have talked quite a bit about music over the years- from whether you could become Mozart, to whether your cats like "Jingle Bells" as much as you do.  First, let's focus on something happy, like the music you really love. 

    If you've ever gotten actual chills listening to a song, you're not alone.   It often happens with music you adore, and researchers think they can explain why.  Here's Stefan to tell us more.

Stefan: If you've ever been listening to music and suddenly felt a shiver, like a kind of strange chill that runs along your spine and makes the hair on your arms stand on end, congrats!  You've experienced what some people call a "skin orgasm."
    Scientists prefer the term frisson, which is French for shiver.  They happen when your body has a strong emotional response to something, like a powerful stretch of notes in a song.  But not everyone experiences them, and scientists think that might have to do with small differences in our brains. 

    A frisson is more than the tingling in your spine.  While that chill is happening, the electrical conductance of your skin increases because of small changes in your sweat glands.  Your pupils also dilate, and brain areas associated with pleasure and euphoria activate as the neurotransmitter dopamine is released in your brain. 

    All of these are the physiological side effects of turning on the neurological reward system that makes you feel good, the same one triggered by food, sex, and illicit drugs.  But why this reward system is turned on by music is less clear.  Sudden jumps from a quiet note to a loud one, or from a low note to a high note often trigger frissons.

    Unexpected solos, harmonies, or sequences in melodies can as well.  

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That might be because those characteristics in music are pleasant surprises, and new or unexpected stimuli can trigger your autonomic nervous system, the part of your nervous system that deals with all involuntary physical activity in your body, like how fast your heart beats.

    But what elicits a frisson also varies from person to person, depending on personal tastes, so scientists think your emotional connection to the piece also plays a role.  You're much more likely to have one while hearing a song that you like than one that you don't, for example.  

    And they don't just happen with music, they can happen in response to visual stimuli, like pictures or movies.  You can even have a frisson just by thinking about an emotional event.  But not everyone gets them.

    Studies suggest that between 55 and 86 percent of people experience frissons.  And a personality trait called openness to experience might explain why.

    People who score highly on that trait often experience intense emotions, have active imaginations and are intellectually curious.  And, according to a 2016 study of 100 college students, they have frissons more frequently when listening to music. 

    The study authors suggest that might be because they're processing the music in a more cognitive, attentive way, which makes them more likely to be emotionally moved by something unexpected in music.  

    Another 2016 study of 20 people added to that by comparing the brains of people who experienced frissons with those who do not.  People who do had more connectivity between the auditory cortex, the region which processes sounds, and emotional processing centers in the brain, like the insula and medial prefrontal cortex.

    If you're not sure if you've ever had a frisson, a devoted subreddit suggests listening to Imogen Heap's "Hide and Seek" or "Comfortably Numb" by Pink Floyd.  Those songs seem to give lots of people skin orgasms.  Happy listening!

Olivia:  Wow Stefan, that's not quite how I'd describe chills, but thanks for the explanation.  But while there are some common features to songs that make us shiver, it's safe to say we have pretty different tastes in tunes.  And that has a lot to do with our parents.  Let me explain. 

    Have you been getting in formation with Beyonce lately?  Or maybe you're more of a Dead-Head and the '70s were the peak of music.  A lot of debates about a so-called golden age of music come down to personal taste.  But can science help explain where your music taste comes from?


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    According to some psychology research, it's probably linked to your memories of different songs, so there's not just one era of timeless tunes.  Developmental psychologists have noticed that the memories you form as a young adult tend to stay more detailed, even as you get older.  So, in the late 1990's, some researchers wanted to see if this pattern was also true for memories of music, and if that affected people's music tastes.

    To do that, they collected a library of songs, with one that was popular in each year from 1935 to 1994.  Then they rounded up some elderly people and college students, played them 20 seconds of each song, and asked if they had heard it before, if they had memories related to it, and whether they liked it.  

    The older group liked the songs that were popular when they were teenagers best, while MC Hammer wasn't exactly their cup of tea.  And that's basically what psychologists expected.  But, the younger group was kind of surprising.

    They liked the songs from their teenage years best, but they also recognized and liked popular songs from the late 1960's, before they were even born.  At the time, researchers argued that the late 1960's was the golden age of music, since even the kids with their newfangled grunge were still listening to those songs. 

    Case closed, right?  Well, not exactly.  Good science means trying to replicate results, so if that was the golden age, other psychologists would see it if they ran the study again.  A decade later some researchers did just that, using audio clips from the top two singles from 1955 to 2009 year-end Billboard Charts.

    They only tested college students and found a similar pattern.  Only this time, the golden age seemed to be in the early 1980's, not the late 1960's.  These psychologists drew a different conclusion, because they also asked how old the student's parents were.  And the golden age songs were from when their parents would've been teenagers.

    Somehow, the parents were passing their music tastes onto their kids.  But it's not like there's a funk gene or a new wave gene that you can inherit.  

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Instead, it's probably an example of the mere exposure effect.  Basically, people report liking a thing more when they've seen it or heard it before- whether it's a song or even just random shapes. 

    And it's especially true when they're not paying close attention to the thing at first, like if parents played their favorite songs around their children.  So there probably never was, or ever will be, one golden age of music.  But there's likely a golden age for you. 

    Hm, now that I think about it, all of that kind of explains why so many carols from the '50s just won't die.  And it must be so much worse for the people who can tell that the high note in that one recording that's played over and over is just a little bit off. 

   I'm talking about people with perfect pitch of course.  And it seems like those who have it picked it up in childhood.  But, as Hank explains, it might be possible to learn. 

Hank:  If you heard some random music notes, would you be able to figure out what they were?

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