Music is most likely to tingle the spine, in short, when it includes surprises in volume, timbre and harmonic pattern.
Writing for the Wall Street Journal, Michaeleen Doucleff looks at the how Grammy Award winner Adele seems to elicit “tears and chills” with her ballad ‘Someone Like You’. He finds from a conversation with Martin Guhn, a psychologist at the University of British Columbia, that music is most likely to tingle the spine, in short, when it includes surprises in volume, timbre and harmonic pattern:
“Someone Like You” is a textbook example. “The song begins with a soft, repetitive pattern,” said Dr. Guhn, while Adele keeps the notes within a narrow frequency range. The lyrics are wistful but restrained: “I heard that you’re settled down, that you found a girl and you’re married now.” This all sets up a sentimental and melancholy mood.
When the chorus enters, Adele’s voice jumps up an octave, and she belts out notes with increasing volume. The harmony shifts, and the lyrics become more dramatic: “Sometimes it lasts in love, but sometimes it hurts instead.”
When the music suddenly breaks from its expected pattern, our sympathetic nervous system goes on high alert; our hearts race and we start to sweat. Depending on the context, we interpret this state of arousal as positive or negative, happy or sad.