Notes to Live By: Why Your Brain Craves Music


Music isn’t essential for our survival. You won’t die if you go without listening for a week, and it’s not necessary for procreation. So why does your brain crave music?

In an issue of Science, neuroscientists reported that music triggers activity in the nucleus accumbens, the same brain structure that releases dopamine, the “pleasure chemical,” during sex and eating. Animals get that same thrill from food and sex, but not, despite the occasional dancing cockatoo, from music.

Music and neuroscience are no strangers to one another. For decades, scientists have been trying to find the link between our brains and the stimulus that music provides.

Research led by Valorie Salimpoor threw some more light on the subject. Salimpoor initiated the research because she was once so overwhelmed by hearing Johannes Brahms’ “Hungarian Dance” in the car that she was forced to pull over. So she started trying to figure out why. She gathered a group of 19 volunteers, who were asked to listen to short samples of 60 songs they’d never heard before. They were then asked to bid a small amount of money for each track — up to a maximum of $2 (with their own money). While they listened, the brains of the participants were scanned using an MRI.

Here’s where it got interesting: several different brain regions were stimulated in the participants’ brains when they liked a song, but when they were willing to pay for a song, there was one area in particular that lit up — the nucleus accumbens, the region in the brain responsible for the sensation of “pleasant surprise.

A Human Phenomenon

Music is a human phenomenon. Animals aren’t moved by music the same way we are and don’t hear melody or tone in the same way we do. Yet, when it comes to human beings, music can have a hugely powerful impact — from affecting our mood, to our emotions, to our confidence, and even our mental health. When we listen to music, it has a physical impact on our bodies — the same caused by any other kind of emotional arousal. Our pupils dilate, our pulse and blood pressure rise, and the electrical conductance of our skin is lowered. Some scientists believe that blood is redirected to the muscles in our legs and that is what causes us to start tapping our feet.

Neuroscientists believe that this is because music lights up your brain’s reward centers — the nucleus accumbens and the amygdala, and produces oxytocin, the love hormone. In fact, research shows that music can reduce pain by 21 percent and reduce depression by 25 percent.

But that isn’t all. We like music because it challenges us. Because our brains are constantly trying to predict what will come next in a musical sequence, it keeps us tuned and engaged. That might explain why putting on soft familiar music when you have a headache soothes you. Researchers now believe that music and mood are intrinsically linked and that the music we listen to affects our psychology.

In a study conducted by researcher Jacob Jolij and student Maaike Meurs of the psychology department of the University of Groningen, in the Netherlands, test subjects were asked to identify happy and sad smiley faces while listening to either sad or happy music. They found that the music the subjects were listening to, in large part, determined how they identified the faces. When given neutral smiley faces (that is, neither happy, nor sad), the subjects mostly identified them as happy if they were listening to happy music and sad if the music was sad.

“Seeing things that are not there is the result of top-down processes in the brain,” Jolij said to media at the time. “Conscious perception is largely based on these top-down processes: Your brain continuously compares the information that comes in through your eyes with what it expects on the basis of what you know about the world. The final result of this comparison process is what we eventually experience as reality. Our research results suggest that the brain builds up expectation not just on the basis of experience but on your mood as well.”

What Happens In The Brain?

So what exactly happens in your brain when you listen to music? It’s hard to say since so many different areas of the brain are activated when a person listens to music. There is no center for music in the brain, like there is for other things, such as language.

When you hear a song, your frontal lobe and temporal lobe begin deciphering the sound. There are other parts of the brain that will process rhythm, pitch, and melody.

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