My favourite thing about getting a haircut is hearing the scissors snip near my ears. When I feel particularly anxious or sad my first port of call is that video of David Lynch attentively cooking quinoa in the dark for 20 minutes. Once, a stranger was having a phone conversation at a respectful volume on the London overground and their voice – soft, airy, American – was so relaxing that I stayed on for an extra three stops just to listen to him talk about his sick dog. Out of context, you’d be forgiven for thinking that these things make me An Absolute Nutter. It’s the sort of information that might be revealed about the Croydon Cat Killer, once identified. But what if I told you there are millions of people all over the world watching videos of people whispering, gently ripping things up or working their way through a jar of pickles in order to relax?
ASMR has received a fair bit of coverage since the term was first coined in 2010, but it’s still a largely under-researched subject. There has been a “what the heck is ASMR” article published pretty much every year since the early 10s, but to recap: “autonomous sensory meridian response” refers to an experience characterised by a tingling sensation and deeply relaxed feeling most often induced by soft talking, scratching sounds, gentle tapping. There are a wide variety of ASMR triggers, and not everyone will respond to them all, but according to ASMR University they “generally tend to be repetitive, methodical, gentle, at a steady pace, and at low and/or steady volume”.
As a result YouTube is full of “ASMRtists” who create videos specifically for people with ASMR, which is why there are so many uploads of women with acrylics scratching a sequin pillow for an hour, but there is also such a thing as “unintentional ASMR” – where the same sensation can be triggered by haircuts, for example. Or unboxing videos. Or the work of Bob Ross. It’s not something I ever noticed in music until Giggs released “Lock Doh” and had to leave my desk every time it came on in the office, but more on that in a moment.
There is, currently, very little information on the relationship between music and ASMR, but that’s not to say the worlds aren’t already intertwined. Holly Herndon’s 2015 album Platform includes an ASMR track called “Lonely At The Top”, featuring ASMRtist Claire Tolan tapping, turning pages and role-playing a situation in which the listener is being cared for in a very clinical way; she pours water, gives positive affirmations, asks you if you’re OK. It may not do it for everyone but it has all the classic ASMR stimuli. Again, though, it’s intentional – it also doesn’t feature any actual music. But – *extremely Carrie Bradshaw voice* – I couldn’t help but wonder: can music trigger ASMR too?
Music can cause frisson – “a sudden strong feeling of excitement or fear; a thrill” – which can sometimes be mistaken for ASMR. It’s also possible for ASMR to be experienced alongside frisson, though. When I listen to “Lock Doh” I feel a very strong sense of calm from the beat and Giggs’ voice in particular, but there are some noises that feel too jarring for the track to be wholly relaxing. I also think Giggs’ voice is a bit sexy, so it’s possible that it doesn’t set off my ASMR at all, it just makes me horny (those who experience ASMR are adamant that it is explicitly not sexual). So: ASMR, frisson, thirst? Which is it? Could it be all three? As usual, I am very confused about my feelings and need a professional to tell me what’s going on. In an effort to find out more about the relationship between music and ASMR, I got in touch with Dr Craig Richard – Professor of Biopharmaceutical Sciences at Shenandoah University, Virginia, and founder of ASMR University. I sent him a few of my “trigger songs” as well as some sent to me by others to see what his opinion was.
Dave and J Hus – “Samantha”
Noisey: Right then, Craig. What do you make of this?
Dr Craig Richard: Interesting mix of rapping at a medium pace with gentle piano and slow vocals. I think the key to the relaxing vibe is the underlying piano and slow vocals. I didn’t catch any sounds or any other common ASMR triggers, but they could have been so subtle that I missed them.
The first vocal is particularly nice. Quite deep and breathy, plus there’s an echo effect on it which produces a soothing rustling sound.
Yes, the low voice/slow vocal is what best conveys the relaxation because his tone is so non-threatening. A recent publication did associate lower-pitched voices with ASMR, but also noted that background music is likely to be inhibitive to ASMR.
Danny L Harle – “Me4U”
This, to me, feels more stimulating than than soothing.
The high pitch vocals may be the key here. Although low pitch vocals can stimulate ASMR, high pitch of the vocals can also convey relaxation to some because we increase our pitch when we express care or concern to others. I sort of found it soothing, but it did not stimulate ASMR and I agree it was also slightly stimulating due to the faster bpm.
The vocal here is very synthetic sounding. People rarely use their natural speaking voice in ASMR, so does it often help for the voice to sound a little bit like a robot?
People in ASMR videos use a caring and very human tone, although not their normal speaking tone as you said. A robot tone would not convey a caring and human tone so I do not think ASMR is enhanced by synthetic or robotic tones.
Justin Bieber – “Heartbreaker”
Apparently this song does it for people, especially when they focus on the backing vocals.
It sounds like the backing vocals are a remix of his own vocals? They are calming, soothing, comforting. Slower and softer rhythms are more likely to trigger ASMR because faster and stronger rhythms may trigger an alert response in human brains.
CocoRosie – “Good Friday”
Why do you think this one might set people off? I’ve noticed one big trigger seems to be panning the vocals from side to side.
Great use of stereo in this song, as you said. Definitely adds to the intimacy of the song because it feels as if someone is next to you, and then the added whispering enhances it even more. There is additionally a constant scratching noise, like on thick cardboard.
That bit throws me off, to be honest.
Personally I think the scratching noise is too frenetic and rapid to be a good ASMR trigger. Near the end there is also a little bit of a tapping sound, like on a plastic cup. Of all the videos so far, this one has the most ASMR potential to me because it has the most ASMR triggers. Although it did not do it for me, I can see why this might be a strong ASMR trigger song for some.
Amerie – “1 Thing”
Someone sent this to me highlighting the arrangement as a trigger. Is there something about the different combinations of rhythms and sounds that could work?
This one comes off to me as the least relaxing and least ASMR-invoking. The beat is a bit fast and frenetic, almost like organised cacophony (which probably is an oxymoron). I am very surprised anyone would report this as ASMR-inducing.
Giggs – “Lock Doh ft. Donae'o”
And so we have arrived at The Confuser. What you saying: ASMR potential or nah?
The low/slow spoken vocal with the slower, steady, deep underlying beat is the strongest potential ASMR trigger, but there’s also a screaming/screeching/cawing noise in this track that promotes alertness rather than relaxation.
In a New York Times piece on ASMR a sleep disorder specialist at Columbia University is quoted as saying: “People who have insomnia are in a hyper state of arousal. Behavioural treatments – guided imagery, progressive relaxation, hypnosis and meditation – are meant to try to trick your unconscious into doing what you want it to do. ASMR videos seem to be a variation on finding ways to shut your brain down.” Do you agree with that?
I have a different perspective. Someone is going to sleep easier because an activating stimulus has been decreased or an inhibiting stimulus has been applied. ASMR can do both. The sounds of ASMR videos can block out externals sounds and distract the mind from focusing on agitating thoughts. Perhaps even more powerful is that the brain registers ASMR triggers as non-threatening sounds, which are usually associated with caring individuals. As a result, neurotransmitters like endorphins and oxytocin are probably released, which directly and/or indirectly cause neurons to decrease their activity, a state we call "relaxation".
I mean, they seem to be suggesting that ASMR can help calm anxious and horny people down.
ASMR may be helpful to people with anxiety. I don’t think it decreases libido or else ASMR videos would not be so popular – it may help to bolster libido when ASMR triggers and sexual stimuli are co-applied, leading to the popularity of ASMR erotica videos.
That might explain why I have to leave the desk. Lots of people are quick to dismiss ASMR as being erotic but do you think there’s any overlap at all in terms of the sensations it can produce?
ASMR is more about intimacy and safety. When coupled with erotic stimuli, it may be misunderstood to be erotic. ASMR is like massage oil, by itself it just feels interesting and non-sexual, couple it to something sexual and it enhances the sexual experience.
ASMRrtists often use trigger words [words that usually have lots of s, p, c, q, t sounds in them]. I have a theory that – because rap is super wordy, is focused on rhythm over melody, and lots of repetition of similar sounds – it has higher chance of triggering ASMR.
I think songs with good ASMR trigger words and a slow, steady and/or predictable rhythm have a better chance of stimulating ASMR, yes.
Twice – “TT”
This, however, does not do it for me at all. Someone on Twitter bloody loves it, though.
Yeah, the creaky doors and stumbling footsteps initially invoke alertness not relaxation. The vocals and beat are too fast to be strong ASMR triggers.
Shamir – “On the Regular”
Someone said they felt the melody of this song was ASMR-inducing.
To me, this does not have strong ASMR potential. The beat is fast and steady, with occasional crescendos, which are stimulating. The singer's tone is a bit monotone at times which may be the only ASMR-positive stimulus I can note.
A challenge with all of these songs being referenced as "ASMR stimulators" by some people is that it is not really known if they were actually experiencing "ASMR". I have the curiosity that when someone says a song gives them ASMR that they may be confusing ASMR and frisson.
What’s the difference?
Frisson is much more researched and is strongly associated with evocative music. Frisson is an immediate and short-lived emotional sensation usually accompanied by chills, and these chills are almost the same as the chills due to a slight cold wind. The emotional moment also tends to feel more exhilarating and stimulating, rather than calming and relaxing. ASMR is less researched so the understanding has less of a firm foundation, but the minimal research and maximal anecdotes has painted an evolving picture of how ASMR is different from and similar to frisson.
How would you describe the relationship between music and ASMR?
Music is not one of the strong or popular triggers for ASMR. The recent research publication I noted earlier also showed that background music may decrease ASMR sensations. Similar to frisson, the induction may come on fast, but the feeling can continue to linger longer than frisson. ASMR is less "emotional" and more about feeling deeply relaxed. Frisson is mostly associated with "chills" (probably over 90 percent) but ASMR is more associated with "brain tingles" (more than 90 percent in our research).
Many of those songs made me want to tap my foot or move about somehow – dare I say dance at my desk. That is not what happens with ASMR triggers. ASMR usually makes you want to zone out, lean back, put your head on your desk, bask in the calming glow, or fall asleep.
Is there evidence that ASMR and frisson are related?
Yes. Our research shows that only about 40 percent feel "chills" with their ASMR, but that does give some validity to potential overlap between ASMR and frisson. Our research also shows that people who experience ASMR are more likely to get chills from music, so again, either proof of overlap of sensations, or confusion about the sensations, or both.
Studies done by us and other researchers show that people who experience ASMR score higher for the personality trait called “openness to experience.” than those who don't experience ASMR. And curiously, other researchers have shown that those who experience frisson also score higher for the personality trait called “openness to experience” than those who don't experience frisson. I look forward to more research being done on the association between ASMR and music, and the differences between ASMR and frisson.
Thanks for your help, Craig!
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