Your Brain and Music

Tuesday, 31 March, 2015

For many of us, music is an integral part of our lives. But why is this? Music has been known to cause increases in heart rate, dilated pupils, body temperature changes, chills and goose bumps, as well as generally awesome feelings. As to what gives us these lovely physical and psychological changes, we can point to the neurotransmitter dopamine as the root cause.

Neurotransmitters are the chemical messages sent between neurons in your brain. Different neurotransmitters elicit different effects. The release of dopamine in particular is associated with pleasure and addiction, through expectation and reward mechanisms. In fact, the dopamine reward system is at the core of every possible addiction, including music addiction, which I swear is a thing. And as with any addiction, it can be extremely disruptive to one’s life, despite sounding like the best addiction ever.

The dopamine reward system evolved to aid in survival. When you engage in things like eating, drinking, positive social interaction and sex, your brain rewards you with a dopamine hit, sending you a rush of pleasure. Your body is basically saying, “Keep doing that! It’s good for you!”, even when the behaviour becomes detrimental to your physical and psychological health. This is addiction.

“But music isn’t necessary for survival!”, I hear you say. “How is this possible?” Well, no one is exactly sure, but there are some cool theories. These include the theory that surprises in music may activate the fear response in the emotion-processing centre of the brain (the amygdala), creating goose bumps and chills. The brain then realises there’s no real danger, and the experience becomes positive.

A study by Valorie Salimpoor suggests that it’s to do with the evocation of emotions. Emotions induced by music are typically evoked by tension, resolution, expectation, delay and surprise. These are constantly manipulated by music-makers. My favourite example is when Daft Punk remixed ‘One More Time’ for their Alive tour. They extended the instrumentals, tricking the whole crowd, who diligently started singing at the time they were used to.

Salimpoor found that before the emotional peak induced by music, there was relatively greater dopamine activity. This indicates that either via your prior knowledge of your favourite song, or from an understanding of musical structure, you anticipate each note and climax of the piece, as well as anticipating either the confirmation or breach of your expectations.

Despite music appreciation not being adaptively helpful (except maybe for surviving awkward social gatherings), the ability to predict what’s coming next is especially evolutionarily handy for survival, so possibly your brain is rewarding you for your prediction, and not the music itself. Whatever the reason, I’m very happy for it.