The Neuroscience of Music

Jonah Lehrer blogs for Recently he posted a piece on The Neuroscience of Music.  In it he asks questions that musicians and neuroscientists have long wondered about, “Why does music make us feel the way we do?”  Lehrer then looks at a recent study designed to take a close look at that question.

The first thing they discovered (using ligand-based PET) is that music triggers the release of dopamine in both the dorsal and ventral striatum. This isn’t particularly surprising: these regions have long been associated with the response to pleasurable stimuli. It doesn’t matter if we’re having sex or snorting cocaine or listening to Kanye: These things fill us with bliss because they tickle these cells. Happiness begins here.

But the study didn’t stop there.  They used an fMRI and noticed something interesting.

In essence, the scientists found that our favorite moments in the music were preceeded by a prolonged increase of activity in the caudate. They call this the “anticipatory phase” and argue that the purpose of this activity is to help us predict the arrival of our favorite part.

In other words, the anticipation of a favorite phrase created a Pavlovian response in the brains of the listeners.  This anticipation itself could be responsible for much of the pleasure we get when listening to music, particularly when the composer surprises us by doing something unexpected.  The surge of dopamine our brains get is caused by our struggle to figure out what’s going to happen next.

The article is an interesting read, but so are many of the comments on the blog as well.  If you’re looking to waste some time, go over and check it out.

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