Your Brain On Music: Pure Joy

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Figure 2: Evidence for dopamine release during pleasurable music listening.

Listening to music invokes our emotions, ranging from pleasure to disdain. It is one of our most human experiences, sometimes so profound that words cannot convey the intensity. One of my closest friends, a professor of musicology, once asked me in a moment of self doubt, “You’re a scientist, you do important things…what good is music?” Like many creative souls, he had no idea how important the contribution of art is to our very being.

Canadian scientists have documented in a study published in Nature Neuroscience that not only listening to music, but the anticipation thereof, can release the neurotransmitter dopamine in the brain.

How did they select their subjects? According to the paper:

217 individuals responded to advertisements requesting people who experience chills to music; after five rounds of screening, the final group included eight participants. First, individuals provided ten pieces of instrumental music to which they experience intense pleasure and “chills” without restrictions to the genre of music, which included classical, folk, jazz, electronica, rock, punk, techno and tango (see http://www.zlab.mcgill.ca/supplements/supplements_intro.html for samples).

Those who experience chills? Count me in, whether it is Bach, Chopin or yes, even pop stars such as Joni Mitchell, Natalie Merchant or Linkin Park (odd range, I know.)

What were their conclusions? According to their Abstract:

Music, an abstract stimulus, can arouse feelings of euphoria and craving, similar to tangible rewards that involve the striatal dopaminergic system. Using the neurochemical specificity of [11C]raclopride positron emission tomography scanning, combined with psychophysiological measures of autonomic nervous system activity, we found endogenous dopamine release in the striatum at peak emotional arousal during music listening. To examine the time course of dopamine release, we used functional magnetic resonance imaging with the same stimuli and listeners, and found a functional dissociation: the caudate was more involved during the anticipation and the nucleus accumbens was more involved during the experience of peak emotional responses to music. These results indicate that intense pleasure in response to music can lead to dopamine release in the striatal system. Notably, the anticipation of an abstract reward can result in dopamine release in an anatomical pathway distinct from that associated with the peak pleasure itself. Our results help to explain why music is of such high value across all human societies.

Such understatements! Anticipation…rewards…intense pleasure…why music is of such high value? We’ve known it all along, but it’s great to see it so well documented by neuroscientists.

Comments

  1. #1 Hp
    January 18, 2011

    One of my closest friends, a professor of musicology, once asked me in a moment of self doubt, “You’re a scientist, you do important things…what good is music?”

    No offense, but that doesn’t sound like anything a musicologist would say, and I’ve known some of the best. Rhetorical flourish, perhaps?

    One of the issues I have with music cognition and music perception research is that “listening to music” — that is, passively sitting and paying attention to a recording or even a live concert — is a modern phenomenon, perhaps a few hundred years old at most, and only for the most elite humans until the 20th century. Learning about listening to music simply can’t tell us anything universal about how humans relate to music. You’d get better results by wiring up some beatnik folksingers and requesting “Old Joe Clark.” (Note to cognitive scientists reading this: Wire up some beatnik folksingers and request “Old Joe Clark.” At the very least, it will be a gas.)

    I don’t think that passive listening has been anything like a universal human experience for anything like the length of time it would take to tell us anything at all about human nature. It’d be like trying to study tool use by looking only at video games.

    Statistically speaking, since the African modern human population bottleneck back in the Pleistocene, music has been an exclusively social activity, indistinguishable from dance and storytelling.

    I’m a conservatory-trained musician with a strong musicology background (Pi Kappa Lambda, ’84), but I really think that musicologists, ethnomusicologists, and cognitive scientists ought to let the sociologists take the lead on this one, at least until we all agree on meaningful definitions with clear metrics. (See Howard S. Becker, who’s been doing yeoman’s work on this for decades.)

  2. #2 Generic
    January 19, 2011

    Well… actually I just love the way the article has been formed and concluded. I think other fresh writers should learn from you and write just like you. The way you have given information on the subject is just too wonderful and amazing.

  3. #3 Jeff
    January 19, 2011

    Thank you for your thoughtful comment; you raise some important points. Input from a learned musicologist is especially important here. As for my musicology friend, as I said, it was coming from a moment of self doubt. I look forward to more enriching discussion about passive vs. active roles in the musical experience.

  4. #4 Jeff
    January 19, 2011

    PS As a scientist, I have had my own moments of self doubt with regards to contributions of science and technology towards society. This may be another example of being human.

  5. #5 Ian Kemmish
    January 19, 2011

    Since they didn’t advertise for people who don’t experience a “chill” (whatever that is), there can be no way of knowing what proportion of the population those 217 candidates represent.

    Plus, they apparently took it on trust when the subjects reported that their musical “chills” were not associated with non-musical associations. Yet how many people in the 19-24 age group can have experienced much that isn’t programme music? Even a head-banging rock fan in that age group will presumably think of Elmer Fudd the instant he hears Wagner. And I submit that it is impossible for one of the genres used in the experiment – tango – to elicit any emotional response that is associated with the act of dancing. People after all (other than maybe Monsieur Hulot) simply don’t sit down and listen to tango concerts.

    Candidates were asked to rate music from neutral to extremely pleasurable. What happened to those who find particular genres unpleasant to listen to? Were they rejected from the experiement, or bullied into changing their assessment? Either would invalidate the whole experiment.

    Finally, out of 217 candidates, we’re left with 8 people who produced results close enough to what the experimenters wanted to actually take part in the experiment. Let’s be generous and say that only two or three of those lied on the questionnaire about extra-musical emotional associations. We’re left to ask how many of the five that are left subconsciously associated music with drug-taking. The experimenters claim they screened these out, but they give no details, and no test is absolutely reliable. Let’s say another two.

    So, on the basis of perhaps three 19-24 year olds, we get people generalising about the entire population. All this experiment proves is that you can use a lot of expensive equipment without ever doing any science. Anyway you look at it, a test group that’s been screened all the way down to three individuals (or eight at the absolute most generous) is exceptional. Not average, by any stretch of the imagination.

    (Personal data point: I have spent seven years researching, designing, and building various musical instruments, and over the past decade over 8,000 hours learning the harpsichord. I love music. Yet I have never experienced a “chill” since adolescence, and maybe not even then, since I just don’t get their description of a “chill”.)

  6. #6 Jeff
    January 19, 2011

    Great comment – a thoughtful analysis of their methods. Thank you very much. I am not claiming that their findings reveal a profound new insight into how humans react to music – simply that they have documented that our brains release dopamine when listening to music. I agree that their study is preliminary. Regarding “chills” – I am not sure how they define it, but in my opinion, you know it when you feel it; I still have this experience when at a good concert, and it has been a very long time indeed since I was a teenager.

  7. #7 tero
    January 21, 2011

    to Ian: Maybe you’re too accustomed to the music through extensive training, that you cannot take it anymore as a simple pleasure of melodies, but reduce it to the constituent components i.e. notes and so forth.
    I am way past my teen age times, but still on day to day basis get this wonderful sensations the authors describe as “chills” while listening to various different genres of music, still having no idea whatsoever about the techniques behind it.
    Maybe I am only saying the feeling one gets from music is subjective personal experience many times associated with some other event that occurred during some tie experiencing that particular song.
    To me this is wonderful example of environment affecting us in profound way, and to really see some functional brain component under the sensation.
    Lovely Post!

  8. #8 tero
    January 21, 2011

    to Ian: Maybe you’re too accustomed to the music through extensive training, that you cannot take it anymore as a simple pleasure of melodies, but reduce it to the constituent components i.e. notes and so forth.
    I am way past my teen age times, but still on day to day basis get this wonderful sensations the authors describe as “chills” while listening to various different genres of music, still having no idea whatsoever about the techniques behind it.
    Maybe I am only saying the feeling one gets from music is subjective personal experience many times associated with some other event that occurred during some tie experiencing that particular song.
    To me this is wonderful example of environment affecting us in profound way, and to really see some functional brain component under the sensation.
    Lovely Post!

  9. #9 Howard Brandwein
    January 22, 2011

    I may be one of the chilled people who like Oliver Sachs the eminent md neuroloogist and author whose brain lights up a PET scan when he listens to Bach and has no trouble identifying this with intense pleasure. For me its’s Wagner as it was for Bernard Roseman whose exquisite description of mescaline associated exstatic sensory enlghtenment found in his “50 thousand indians can’t be wrong” written almost 50 years ago has never been surpassed for clarity and authenticity. As for tango I challenge any musical lover to listen to Astor Pizzola (ex. LUNA) and not to feel moved and chilled.

  10. #10 Jeff
    January 22, 2011

    Absoulely! I admire Dr. Sack’s work very much, and agree with your examples of chill-inducing music. Thank you for your comment.

  11. #11 harleymc
    January 23, 2011

    This is too funny, the ‘sucessful’ test subjects get to supply stimuli that give them a chill and wow 3 (from an already biased sample of 217) show dopamine releases.

    Let me see how this goes ‘I like and get a chill when I get a particular self selected stimulus, I’m anticipating the stimulus, I receive the reward’… tension release, dopamine flood.

    There was so much bias and stratification of the sample and no pretense of randomisation. It would be more significant if no effect had been found.

    As a DJ I work with music a lot, and also listen to it for my own pleasure but a ‘chill’, what does that mean?

  12. #12 adam smolkowicz
    March 21, 2011

    I am way past my teen age times, but still on day to day basis get this wonderful sensations the authors describe as “chills” while listening to various different genres of music, still having no idea whatsoever about the techniques behind it.

    adam smolkowicz

  13. #13 Beth Barany
    United States
    December 11, 2012

    Jeff, What I’d really like to know is what is the evolutionary benefit to music. On the note of self-doubt, I totally understand. I’m a novelist and wonder in those dark moments what is the benefit of fiction. I know and have experienced how stories how make sense of my world. But sometimes I forget that.

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