Biological Templates for Musical Experience:
From Fear to Pleasure

David Huron
International Symposium on the Neurobiology of Music
Rice University, November 18, 2006


The 18th century British philosopher, Edmund Burke, speculated that "sublime" aesthetic experiences (such as the experience of "awe") are related to the evoking of fear. Burke's speculations arose from informal observations, but modern neuroscience provides a more detailed and compelling account that is consistent with Burke's intuitions. This presentation discusses empirical research related to four major classes of emotional responses occasionally evoked by music: (1) frisson (characterized by chills, shivers, and piloerection), (2) laughter (characterized by what Provine has called "socialized panting"), (3) awe (characterized by gasping or breath-holding), and (4) weeping (characterized by tears, nasal congestion and laryngeal constriction). It is noted that these four responses closely resemble the four classic physiological patterns observed in vertebrate responses to fear: fight (defensive aggression), flight (withdrawl or escape), freeze (immobility) and submission (appeasement). An account is presented as to how musical passages might evoke such responses, and why the ensuing responses might be experienced as pleasurable.

Return to David Huron's Home Page