The brain responds to music the same way it responds to something that you eat.
Scientists have found that the pleasurable experience of listening to music releases dopamine, a neurotransmitter in the brain important for more tangible pleasures associated with rewards such as food, drugs, and sex.
The results suggest why music, which has no obvious survival value, is so significant across human society.
The new study also reveals that even the anticipation of pleasurable music induces dopamine release. The same is the case with food, drug, and sex cues. The study is from The Montreal Neurological Institute and Hospital — The Neuro at McGill University. It was published in the journal Nature Neuroscience.
The team at The Neuro measured dopamine release in response to music that elicited "chills," changes in skin conductance, heart rate, breathing, and temperature that were correlated with pleasurability ratings of the music. "Chills" or "musical frisson" is a well-established marker of peak emotional responses to music. A novel combination of PET and fMRI brain imaging techniques revealed that dopamine release is greater for pleasurable versus neutral music and that levels of release are correlated with the extent of emotional arousal and pleasurability ratings. Dopamine is known to play a pivotal role in establishing and maintaining biologically necessary behavior. Dr. Robert Zatorre, a neuroscientist at The Neuro, said:
These findings provide neurochemical evidence that intense emotional responses to music involve ancient reward circuitry in the brain. To our knowledge, this is the first demonstration that an abstract reward such as music can lead to dopamine release. Abstract rewards are largely cognitive in nature, and this study paves the way for future work to examine non-tangible rewards that humans consider rewarding for complex reasons.
Music is unique in the sense that we can measure all reward phases in real-time, as it progresses from baseline neutral to anticipation to peak pleasure all during scanning. It is generally a great challenge to examine dopamine activity during both the anticipation and the consumption phase of a reward. Both phases are captured together online by the PET scanner, which, combined with the temporal specificity of fMRI, provides us with a unique assessment of the distinct contributions of each brain region at different time points.
Using a combination of imaging techniques, the study reveals that the anticipation and experience of listening to pleasurable music induce the release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter vital for reinforcing behavior that is necessary for survival. The study also showed that two different brain circuits are involved in anticipation and experience, respectively: one linking to cognitive and motor systems, and hence prediction; the other to the limbic system, and hence the emotional part of the brain.