How music makes the brain happy
Music impacts us in ways that other sounds don’t, and for years now, scientists have been wondering why. Now they are finally beginning to find some answers. Using fMRI technology, they’re discovering why music can inspire such strong feelings and bind us so tightly to other people.“Music affects deep emotional centers in the brain, “ says Valorie Salimpoor, a neuroscientist at McGill University who studies the brain on music. “A single sound tone is not really pleasurable in itself; but if these sounds are organized over time in some sort of arrangement, it’s amazingly powerful.”
There’s another part of the brain that seeps dopamine, specifically just before those peak emotional moments in a song: the caudate nucleus, which is involved in the anticipation of pleasure. Presumably, the anticipatory pleasure comes from familiarity with the song—you have a memory of the song you enjoyed in the past embedded in your brain, and you anticipate the high points that are coming. This pairing of anticipation and pleasure is a potent combination, one that suggests we are biologically-driven to listen to music we like.
“It’s kind of like a roller coaster ride,” she says, “where you know what’s going to happen, but you can still be pleasantly surprised and enjoy it.”
Different notes for different folks
Other research on music supports Large’s theories. neuroscientists introduced different styles of songs to people and monitored brain activity. They found that music impacts many centers of the brain simultaneously; but, somewhat surprisingly, each style of music made its own pattern, with uptempo songs creating one kind of pattern, slower songs creating another, lyrical songs creating another, and so on. Even if people didn’t like the songs or didn’t have a lot of musical expertise, their brains still looked surprisingly similar to the brains of people who did.
But if our brains all synch up when we hear the same basic dynamic differences in music, why don’t we all respond with the same pleasure?
Large, like Salimpoor, says that this difference in preference is due to how our neurons are wired together, which in turn is based on our own, personal history of listening to or performing music. Rhythm is all about predictability, he says, and our predictions about music start forming from a pretty early age onward. He points to the work of Erin Hannon at the University of Nevada who found that babies as young as 8 months old already tune into the rhythms of the music from their own cultural environment.
So while activity in the nucleus accumbens may signal emotional pleasure, it doesn’t explain it, says Large. Learning does. That’s why musicians—who’ve usually been exposed to more complicated musical patterns over time—tend to have more varied musical tastes and enjoy more avant-garde musical traditions than non-musicians. Social contexts are also important, he adds, and can affect your emotional responses.
“Liking is so subjective,” he says. “Music may not sound any different to you than to someone else, but you learn to associate it with something you like and you’ll experience a pleasure response.”
Perhaps that explains why I love “Solsbury Hill” so much. Not only does its unusual rhythm intrigue me—as a musician, I still have the urge to count it out from time to time—but it reminds me of where I was when I first heard the song: sitting next to a cute guy I had a crush on in college. No doubt my anticipatory pleasure centers were firing away for a multitude of reasons.