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The brain on music

Understanding what makes music pleasurable

As we walk to class, study at the library, socialize at parties, or join tens of thousands at sold-out music venues, we choose to immerse ourselves in the richness of music. But what is it that makes music so pleasurable?

Music does not provide any obvious evolutionary benefit like sex or food do, but most can say it is a necessity to life as we know it. Across all cultures, music –complex sound streams with hierarchical rules of temporal organization – is a universal source of entertainment.

In an interview with The Daily, David Sears ­– a PhD candidate studying Music Theory at McGill’s Music Perception and Cognition Lab – explained, “the experience of pleasure during music listening — or any other aesthetic experience for that matter — is dependent upon the listener reaching an optimum level of physiological arousal.” If a new musical context is too complex or surprising, we might feel fear, confusion, or disgust, and possibly conclude that we dislike the song. If the song is too simple or familiar, on the other hand, we might feel bored and dislike the song.

According to Sears, “to elicit pleasure, musical works we fall in love with tend to be somewhere in the middle” of this balance between familiarity and complexity. This might explain why we tend to dislike a tune when we hear it for the first time, but then grow to appreciate it after listening to it repeatedly. So one theory, as Sears puts it, might be that “humans seek out aesthetic experiences that optimally challenge us, where attaining a sense of understanding for a new song across repeated listenings is neither too easy nor too difficult.”

Robert Zatorre, James McGillProfessor of Neuroscience, and Alain Dagher professor of Neurology & Neurosurgery and Psychology at McGill, in collaboration with other researchers, used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and positron emission tomography (PET) scans to investigate the neural processes involved when listening to music. Their research paper was published in Science Magazine in April 2013. The study showed that music triggers the release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that is also released during sex and when eating food, to several areas of the brain, including the ventral striatum, which contains the nucleus accumbens.

The scientists used PET scans to determine how much dopamine was released and used the fMRI scans to track the areas that received the dopamine. In terms of pleasure, the study concluded that activity in the ventral striatum region of the brain, which is believed to be responsible for memory and movement, is the best predictor of how much pleasure is derived from a song. The study offers a biological explanation for the processes involved in gaining pleasure from listening to music.

However, why people are able to obtain pleasure from music, remains uncertain. A study published in 2011 in Nature Neuroscience by Zatorre and Dagher, and others suggests listening to music evokes certain emotions through “expectations, delay, tension, resolution, prediction, surprise, and anticipation.” The study concluded “that a sense of emotional expectation, prediction and anticipation in response to abstract pleasure can also result in dopamine release,” resulting in pleasure.

Neuroscientist Jeff Hawkins and New York Times science writer Sandra Blakeslee offer a similar explanation, in their book On Intelligence suggesting that the brain’s main function is in predicting the future. When the brain is able to successfully predict an event, it rewards itself via neural circuitry, and dopamine is released. If this is in fact true, it should be no surprise that music encourages listeners to make predictions, and this fulfillment leads to the kinds of pleasurable experiences that draw listeners back repeatedly.

Music is part of almost all facets of life and can evoke a wide range of emotions and memories. It can have profound effects on our behaviour and, at times, even physically move us. Yet, little is known about how it is able to do that, and even less on why we respond to it the way we do. Scientific inquiry into the neurochemical effects of music is slowly breaking out of its infancy as technology and non-invasive brain imaging techniques advance. Perhaps in the future, scientists will be able to offer more concrete insights into the complex relationship between music and the brain.