Most people have at one point been listening to a song and then all of a sudden felt goosebumps or gotten chills.

What are some ways, as a composer, to write music that would likely induce these feelings in listeners? Are there any specific techniques (or examples of techniques) or general concepts to be mindful of?

  • Design the piece to be performed someplace very cold, perhaps?
    – Aaron
    Commented Sep 12, 2020 at 1:57

6 Answers 6


The music that induces chills will be different from one person to the next so there cannot be a universal formula. Personally, I think you have to be creative and different, but not so different that you alienate people.

However, there has been interesting analysis done about common elements between hit songs.

For example, the I–V–vi–IV chord progression is used a lot, as shown in this video:

On a TED Talk called The Recipe Of A Hit Song Noah Askin has looked at the data from thousands of popular songs. From a musical perspective, he looks into the acoustics created by the song and the tempo. Even the music that you have listened to before listening to a song will affect your reaction to it.

Finally, Rick Beato has a great series of videos on Youtube called What makes this song great in which he analyses the music of different artists. Here's the one about Tom Petty:

While I find this is interesting, the conclusion is that there is no simple formula to write a good song. The most important thing is creativity. Everyone has the same ingredients in their kitchen, but not everyone is a chef.


It is hard to analyze such a process. Frisson happens with an inspired composition and/or performance. It's something magical. How do you formulate or dissect such a process? All I can say is KEEP WRITING. You are bound to hit on something sooner or later.


I would say the most important element of building an emotional payoff is in suspense. No, not just suspended chords, but in the story of your song. Playing with what an audience expects to happen and then subverting their expectations is a great way to get an audience invested in a piece. It keeps them guessing what's going to happen next, and when you finally deliver what they've been waiting for it hits hard.

It's like in horror films when the monster is always out of sight, one by one picking off our protagonists. Then when it's finally revealed what it is... Or like in a romance when all sorts of hints are dropped by our lovebirds and the audience keeps saying "will they or won't they?". Then the final scene comes and they kiss and it's oh so magical.

In music one of the simplest ways to do this is with your cadences. If you always end every part of the piece with a V-I cadence, while sounding nice, it gets predictable. Using false cadences, imperfect cadences, or even modulating all help to break away from predictability and leaves your audience longing for the V-I. Even something as simple as harping on the V chord can cause this (but don't overdo it).


I understand your question to be specifically about getting "chills" which is different that things like "catchy tune" or good rhythm that makes you move.

A few general concepts/thoughts...

A listener's response can change over time. At least I notice this in myself. Sometimes it's the novelty of new music wearing off over time. Other cases it's my taste changing over the years.

The listener's mood matters a lot regardless of the music. If someone is in a bad mood, they aren't as emotionally receptive.

The performance of music can matter as much as the musical content. A player could butcher a really nice composition and fail to create any emotion, despite the potential in the score. In the case of recordings a person may only react emotionally to a specific recording. Think of cover songs. People often don't like covers versus originals, or they prefer the version they are familiar with.

Having said all of that, it's probably good advice to use novel musical devices sparingly. If you overdo something, it can deaden the impact. So, you can use things like borrowed chords, distant key changes, chromatic harmony, etc. to create an emotional effect. But treat them like highlights. They won't get played out from overuse, and if you have repeating sections, it might build anticipation for the return.


Use the 'Tristan' chord.


Or do a string shimmer over a romantic french horn solo.

Or catch an emotional response from a specific audience. A quote of a patriotic song can do it for some. A hymn tune for others. Or 'Star Wars'.

If you discover a universal formula, let us know!


Frisson is an experience that the audience gets that will often vex the composer and the performer. The best that the composers and performers can do is to have before them a receptive audience eager to hear what they are going to play.

Receptivity is going to require setting, situation, interaction between performer and audience, and subject matter. This sounds like a lot that is specific advice for a performer, but it is also important to note for a composer when he is looking to write works for a performer and for the performer to execute.

For setting, that can be a movie theatre, concert hall, a ballroom, a public park, or a nightclub. Knowing where it is going to be played will be important. The ability for the performer to bank sounds off of walls or the lack thereof can be important to determine how payoffs can be delivered. Knowing whether or not the people can pick up on the sweet drop in a nightclub is whether or not the audience can hear when it is being dropped over the rest of the audience.

Situation is also important. It can make the audience vulnerable or it can make the audience hardened and recalcitrant. If you know the song you are going to play is sweet, tragic or anthemic, it helps to know what the situation is. And while writing for that situation may be difficult as situations are transient, writing various songs that can fill these gaps can be important for selling a song to a performer.

Interaction between performer and audience is incredibly important. Writing sweet songs gives an avenue for performers to endear to that audience, especially if sex appeal can be sold. Writing a tragic song allows for performers to open themselves and make them vulnerable. Crowd-working can be a bit out of the purview of the composer but they can insert themselves by dropping in references to other works that the composer expects the audience to know.

Next is subject matter. This is where people get all technical about various cadences so that they can build musical narratives. All useful. See others responses for how cadences can work. You will also want to look at the explicit story in the lyrics, making sure they tell a story or make rhythms that move the audience. Ask yourself whether you are also going to be exploring themes like are you going to tell a sci-fi story? a bildungsromans? a rustic romance? a swashbuckle adventure? a philippic? All important things to consider.

This is general advice for anyone looking to do this and is absent of any advice for which chords to use. I do this because frisson can be induced by styles which do not abide by traditional practices regarding cadences. People can get frisson with hiphop and techno which can be monotonous or atonic.

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