Notes to Live By: Why Your Brain Craves Music

(Editor’s note: This article is from a past issue of Brain World magazine. If you enjoy this article, please support us with a print or digital subscription!)

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.

In 2013, 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.


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.”


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.

Depending on the music itself, different areas of your brain will light up. But what’s most interesting is that different kinds of music and the different settings in which you hear the music will cause different parts of your brain to become active. So brain activity will differ if you’re listening to live music versus recorded music, or if you’re listening to music with lyrics as opposed to without.

Because music is intrinsically linked to several different parts of our lives, it can cause our brains to react in any number of ways. If you’re listening to music with lyrics, then parts of the brain that process language will come into play. If it’s a song that reminds you of a particular time or event, the medial prefrontal cortex, wherein memories are stored, is activated. You might start envisioning the scenario of the song, a visual image that would cause the visual cortex to light up. Your brain might be trying to figure out what the next note will be or fill in the words to the song. It might lead you to tap your feet. All of these reactions are triggered by different parts of the brain and will be activated depending on the song, your relationship to it, and how you’re listening to it.

And we already know that music releases dopamine and activates the reward centers of the brain, giving us the same happiness we would get from chocolate, sex, or drugs.

If you want to improve your mood, play some music. You’re hardwired to react emotionally to it, so you might as well take advantage of this. Even babies as young as 5 months old react to happy songs, according to studies, and by 9 months, they are affected by sad songs as well.

Lately, there’s been a ton of medical research on the ways in which music can be used to make us healthier. It can boost our immune systems, especially after surgery, lower stress and blood pressure, and decrease levels of depression and anxiety.


So if music has such a wide (and often positive) impact on our brains, is there anything we can do to train our brains with music to make us smarter, more creative, and more innovative?

Turns out, we can.

Studies suggest that listening to music when, or just before, trying to solve problems can be a very good idea since people tend to solve problems much more creatively when they’re listening to upbeat music. It goes to reason. You want an innovative solution, you need to be more creative. To be more creative, you need to be in a good and happy mood. And to be in a good and happy mood instantly, music is the perfect solution.

But music can do more than just make you happy. It can make you relax.

But there’s more.

Kayt Sukel, a science writer and the author of “This is Your Brain on Sex: The Science Behind the Search for Love,” talks about the “musician’s advantage,” an observation made by educators, scientists, and researchers over several decades that students who pick up musical instruments tend to excel in academics, are taking the lead in measures of vocabulary, reading, and nonverbal reasoning, and attention skills, just to name a few.

In fact, research conducted at the University of Texas at Arlington last year concluded that musical training might be a promising treatment option for people who struggle with cognitive challenges since musicians typically have an advantage when it comes to long-term memory. In their study, they measured the electrical activity of neurons in the brains of 14 different musicians who had studied classical music for at least 15 years. They had them play memory games with both words and pictures. Through a test of both working and long-term memory, they learned that the musicians scored far higher than a control group of nonmusicians on the working memory tasks. The musicians also scored higher for pictures. “Our work is adding evidence that music training is a good way to improve cognitive abilities,” the study’s lead author Dr. Heekyeong Park, a psychologist at UTA, said in a statement.

So while we might be able to live without music, the question is why would we? Its ability to change and improve our lives for the better knows no boundaries.

(Editor’s note: This article is from a past issue of Brain World magazine. If you enjoy this article, please support us with a print or digital subscription!)


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