Why Your Brain Craves Music

Our highest and lowest processing regions explain the irresistible appeal of a song

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If making music isn’t the most ancient of human activities, it’s got to be pretty close. Melody and rhythm can trigger feelings from sadness to serenity to joy to awe; they can bring memories from childhood vividly back to life. The taste of a tiny cake may have inspired Marcel Proust to pen the seven-volume novel Remembrance of Things Past, but fire up the Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction” and you’ll throw the entire baby-boom generation into a Woodstock-era reverie.

From an evolutionary point of view, however, music doesn’t seem to make sense. Unlike sex, say, or food, it did nothing to help our distant ancestors survive and reproduce. Yet music and its effects are in powerful evidence across virtually all cultures, so it must satisfy some sort of universal need — often in ways we can’t begin to fathom. A few years ago, a single composition lifted Valorie Salimpoor almost instantaneously out of a deep funk (it was Brahms’ Hungarian Dance No. 5, to be precise), and from that moment, she decided it would be her life’s work to figure out music’s mysteries.

It’s working out pretty well so far: in the latest issue of Science, Salimpoor, now a neuroscientist at McGill University in Montreal, reports, along with several colleagues, that music triggers activity in the nucleus accumbens, the same brain structure that releases the “pleasure chemical” dopamine during sex and eating (and, on a darker note, drives addictive behavior as well). Animals get that same thrill from food and sex, but not, despite the occasional dancing cockatoo, from music.

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But the nucleus accumbens is just part of the neural symphony. “Music also activates the amygdala,” says Salimpoor, “which is involved with the processing of emotion, as well as areas of the prefrontal cortex involved in abstract decisionmaking. When we’re listening to music, the most advanced areas of the brain tie in to the most ancient.”

That, it turns out, may be the key to music’s power. In the experiments reported in Science, Salimpoor and her colleagues gauged subjects’ responses to music by exposing them not to songs they already knew (which might be too firmly linked to pleasurable memories of that first kiss or that road trip to Florida), but to songs they have never heard but would probably like, based on their known preferences as filtered through a Pandora- or iTunes-like prediction algorithm.

The subjects listened to the first 30 seconds of each tune while lying in an fMRI imager as the scientists monitored their brains. Then, to provide some sort of objective measure of how much the subjects actually liked each piece of music, they were asked how much they’d pay to buy the whole thing, from zero up to $2.

(MORE: Creating Music Using Brain Waves. Just for Fun or Clinically Important?)

What the scientists found was that the songs that triggered the strongest response from both the emotional and intellectual parts of the brain were correlated with a willingness to pay more. And that suggests that people get not just a sensory reward from listening to music, but a direct intellectual one too — even if they’re not aware of it. The nature of that reward, Salimpoor believes, based on this and earlier research, has to do with pattern recognition and prediction. “As an unfamiliar piece unfolds in time,” she says, “our brains predict how it will continue to unfold.”

These predictions are culture-dependent and based on experience: someone raised on rock or Western classical music won’t be able to predict the course of an Indian raga, for example, and vice versa. But if a piece develops in a way that’s both slightly novel and still in line with our brain’s prediction, we tend to like it a lot. And that, says Salimpoor, “is because we’ve made a kind of intellectual conquest.”

Music may, in other words, tap into a brain mechanism that was key to our evolutionary progress. The ability to recognize patterns and generalize from experience, to predict what’s likely to happen in the future — in short, the ability to imagine — is something humans do far better than any other animals. It’s what allowed us (aided by the far less glamorous opposable thumb) to take over the world.

If music is tied into this most important of survival mechanisms, no wonder we like it so much. “People often put music on the list of the top five things that are most pleasurable for them,” says Salimpoor. You surely thought of none of this the first time you heard “Satisfaction” — nor would you have wanted to — but it helps explain why you’ve listened to it ever since.

MORE: Brain Scans Can Predict Which Criminals Are Likely to Get Rearrested

28 comments
ElaineDolan
ElaineDolan

Accumbens and dopamine...yes, but also affect(emotion) into verbalization. It's the link between primitive functioning and prefrontal integration of experience. ~Elaine Dolan

Glenn_Dixon
Glenn_Dixon

Music is one of the most ancient of complex human activities.  Here's a bone flute from 42,000 B.C.E. found by Dr. Conard at the University of Tubingen.  What's more, they played it (well, okay, a down to the millimetre replica of it).   http://www.tripping-the-world.com/flute.html 

JenniferBuchanan
JenniferBuchanan

The value of this article, and other articles that discuss the brain's reward in experiencing music, is that we can then translate the science (even if we have heard it several times before) into practical application.  As a public speaker on music for health, and an accredited music therapist for over 20 years, the continued research and validation of what music CAN do to help all individuals - especially those new to the understanding of what music can do - learn new strategies and applications to help them achieve their desired goals (ie. increase feelings of connection, boost in mood, decreased anxiety, improved communication, improved focus etc.).  Thank you for continuing to promote this effective and dare I say relatively 'cheap' form of health care and education.

DavidCapps
DavidCapps

????????? Lost comments??? Anyone see them? Thanks!!

punkakes13
punkakes13

music by itself doesnt do halth as music associated with dance, to me

marcheliot167
marcheliot167

Today I learned from TIME Magazine that Proust wrote In Search of Lost Time because he ate a Madeleine. #LiteraryAllusionFail #ReadTheBookIfYouAreGoingToReferenceIt

thinkingcriminal
thinkingcriminal

Aaron Copland said that when a literary man put two words together about music one of them would be wrong.   I think scientists have a somewhat worse record in that regard.  First of all, they assume that the experience of music is the same for everyone when that's obviously not true.  You just have to consult the enormously varying taste in music to know that.  Not to mention people who think one interpretation of a piece is brilliant and another person hearing exactly the same performance with think it's the worst thing they've ever heard.  Glenn Gould's playing, for example. 

TimAndrews
TimAndrews

Bit of a one-sided account of musical cognition? Some suggest that it is an adaptive trait, used as pre-linguistic communication (look at research regarding FOXP2 gene fixation & more theoretical work involving gibbons).

Indeed, Darwin suggested a sexual selection basis for the presence of music, which is still considered plausible.

Could have given consideration to all sides of the debate?

GaryMadison
GaryMadison

Interesting article, but this is nothing new to a musician.  You are missing the very basic elements of why music is created in the first place.  All music is an expression of self, so duh, no wonder the brain recognizes it.  If you examine why a composer creates music, you will have have all the information you need to understand why we respond to it, recognize it, and enjoy (or not enjoy) it.  Rhythm is our heart, our heartbeat.  It is why we crave a steady beat in music.  We recognize and relate to it because we listen to it every waking moment of our lives without realizing it.  Melodies are thoughts.  Brain patterns = music patterns.  Order, sense.  What the writer is calling "prediction".  The arrangement of harmony, chord progression, is what stimulates or emulates emotions.  It is all a part of human process, and is why we crave and enjoy it.

I disagree with the author's "prediction" theory.  Someone who listens to music a lot in any form will better understand its progression throughout a piece of music, including an Indian raga.  Indian ragas, by the way, contain no harmonies, only rhythm and melody, and therefore, do not stimulate the brain in the same manner as Western music that contain complex harmony patterns.  Just as much of the pop music that contains very basic and simple chord progressions and melody patterns, do not stimulate the brain in the same manner as a complex classical symphony.

I have been a musician all of my life and I teach my students where their music comes from within their own minds and bodies, and the power that it has.  You do not need to be a neuroscientist to figure it out.

JoleneJohnson19
JoleneJohnson19

until I saw the check that said $5164, I be certain ...that...my friends brother could actually bringing home money part-time from their laptop.. there neighbour started doing this for under 20 months and at present paid the mortgage on their apartment and got a great new Mercedes. I went here,  Great60.comCHECK IT OUT

sverry7
sverry7

Yes, music is tied in with our ability to imagine - listening to good music can put one in a space light years removed from the jejune (always wanted to use that word!) point of view  of these researchers. Of course the brain responds to music in predictable ways. Toss a pebble in a pond and watch the ripples. It has been said that "all art aspires to music" for good reason. Being incorporeal, it most closely approximates the spiritual. Think too of Pythagoras, the father of mathematics, who spoke of "the music of the spheres." For him, math and music were one and together explained the blossoming of the universe. And so our contemporary string theory, that posits vibrating filaments at the most fundamental level of creation, may well prove to be the rational working out of the great philosopher/scientist's original insight.   

AlanBuffington
AlanBuffington

The article talks about listening to music as opposed to playing music.  As a musician I am much more moved by playing it than listening to it.  When I listen I break the song into it's various instruments and patterns, but when I play it is an out of body experience where the music just happens, no thought required, I am at once both the listener and musician.  When you are a member of a band, you are just part of the sound, with the sum benefit and enjoyment greater than playing alone.  This is part of our past where joining in song, the stories of the past falling into repeating patterns, may have led us to music since it is far easier to remember than long strings of words.  But one of the most intriguing aspects of being a musician is you are at any moment living in the future, the present and the past.  You must know what to do before the note happens, play it very precisely in the present to be in the same moment as your fellow musicians, and then listen to it in the past when it hits your ears and you assimilate the sound you created which is in the past.  More to music than meets the eye.

Hermione
Hermione

Music is one of the greatest achievements that humans have ever accomplished.

Granted, there are some musical genres that I don't listen to, I won't go into details at this time.  Listening to music, especially after a hard day at work, is an excellent way to unwind and spend good times with family and friends.  I am just not sure why there needs to be extensive scientific studies on this - but whatever:)

NicholasHaystaxChase
NicholasHaystaxChase

I'm curious that a study about emotional response was so quickly tied to monetizing something that, at its earliest stages, was, and is, free. In other words, music is something that each of us can make, yet, the study qualifies a musical predilection by how much the listener will pay to buy the tune.

According to this article, the study isn't really looking at brain activity stimulated by music, but at cultural conditioning that assigns 'like' and 'dislike' on a ...monetary! ... scale. So, the study shows us that we'll pay more for music that we like, and we like music that is familiar - even if it is new to us? That is to say, the music isn't really new to us, it's just a variation of something already known.

There isn't anything earth shattering or ground breaking in that research then. It will be more interesting to know why certain Indian Ragas, for instance, seem to be universally appealing, even to those previously unexposed to the cultural form. What of sonic frequencies and their effect on the brain and brain states? Are certain musical keys in western music, or certain Persian scales more appealing or evoke certain emotional responses - regardless of culture?

The study seems like a pitch by iTunes to charge more for .mp3s if you ask me. As a music professional, I'm unimpressed and disappointed.


BorisIII
BorisIII

MRI is the best thing to ever happen to psychology. 

RobertBaker
RobertBaker

Now explain why women are so crazy about dancing! I know a few guys who are somewhat fans but women seem to just love it. 

ToughButFair
ToughButFair

I wish the article had elaborated more on the brain connection between mathematical and musical ability, which has been long recognized by both scientists and qualified professional educators. The strong math/music correlation must somehow be tied to the human brain's pattern recognition and prediction capabilities, too.

It's encouraging to see more and more science-based articles like this one appearing in the American mainstream press.

Hopefully, this new trend is an indication that American society is finally beginning to acknowledge how very little we really do know and understand about human biology - and to admit to ourselves, and to the rest of the world, how really far we still have to go before we can honestly declare the USA to be a world scientific superpower again . . . or a legitimate first-world provider of consistent, high-quality, health care.

AndrewLauzon
AndrewLauzon

What led you to believe that anybody is assuming that everyone's experience of music is the same? The study in question uses algorithms that predict what a person will like based on their own individual tastes.

tplorts
tplorts

@GaryMadison, I sympathize with the way you explain our connection with music, but there are more fundamental  questions to be answered.  I would say your description works for a person trying to comprehend music, trying to attain that experience, but it is too vague for someone trying to understand why and how the brain comprehends music.  Fundamentally: why does rhythm excite us?  Why are melodies thoughts?  Why are diatonic patterns beautiful to us?  That's the kind of stuff this research is attacking.

PaulDirks
PaulDirks

@GaryMadison I actually agree strongly with the prediction theory. I play bass and I often said that my favorite song is the one that I haven't heard yet. There's actually a 'sweet spot' between predictability and novelty. The best songs are the ones that ride that wave.


Hadrewsky
Hadrewsky

@NicholasHaystaxChase 

Money is a useful metaphor and nothing more you closet Marxist.

Assigning things value is as old as time via the barter system... I wouldnt sell you a car for a bag of jellybeans but i might if you give me 100 tons of jellybeans... rather they assign value in Jellybeans ya genius?

Lynn378'kljahgildfu
Lynn378'kljahgildfu

@NicholasHaystaxChase  I suspect that the "monetizing" you dislike so much was simply the use of an easily-explainable scale.  I've responded to far too many feedback calls where they had to explain, "On a scale from one to six, where one is total approval, and six is no approval at all, how would you rate this service.  Remember, one is...".  On the other hand, I can easily figure out whether I'd spend more money, or less, on an individual piece.

IntentiveComm
IntentiveComm

@RobertBaker well, dancing is the courting ritual of the human race. Thus music is related to courting. Courting always evokes strong emotions. So no surprise that music can control emotions so effectively...

RobertBaker
RobertBaker

@ToughButFair

The universe appears to be expanding and the galaxies are moving away from each other. However, there are about 100 known galaxies with blue shifts. Some galaxies in our local  group NGC 185, Andromeda II, Andromeda III, Andromeda V, Pegasus Dwarf Spheroidal Galaxy, Cassiopeia Dwarf, Andromeda IX, Triangulum Galaxy, and Andromeda display a blue shift. They are actually approaching our own galaxy (albeit very slowly in most cases). All the other galaxies in our local group exhibit a redshift. However, the 2dfgrs survey seemed to indicate that the only blue shifted objects detected are not actual galaxies, but stars in our own galaxy. So, are any other galaxies (other than Andromeda) approaching us?