Musical pleasure

Drugs, sex, and food aren't the only sources of pleasure -- music activates the brain's reward circuitry as well

By | January 9, 2011

Sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll have more in common that we thought. A new study, published online today (January 9) in linkurl:Nature Neuroscience,; demonstrates for the first time that music causes the release of dopamine in the brain, just like other pleasurable stimuli, such as food, drugs, and sex.
Listening to intensely pleasurable music releases dopamine in the brain. Credit: Peter Finnie
Even the anticipation of a pleasurable musical crescendo results in the release of dopamine, the authors report. "This is what music theorists have been telling us for centuries," said linkurl:Robert Zatorre,; a neuropsychologist at McGill University in Quebec, Canada, and senior author on the study -- that a resolution of dissonance or the crescendo of a song emotionally affects the listener. To assess the biological mechanism behind a pleasurable musical experience, the team conducted PET and fMRI brain scans while measuring the "chills" -- aka changes in temperature, skin conductance, heart rate and breathing -- that participants felt in response to their favorite songs, which ranged from classical to jazz to techno and even bagpipes. The researchers found that during peak emotional moments, when patients got the "chills," dopamine was released in two areas of the brain: First, in the caudate, an important part of the brain's learning and memory system, during anticipation of a musical peak, then during the peak experience, in the nucleus accumbens, a key site of reward and pleasure pathways. The results may explain why music is so highly valued in society, said Zatorre, a trained organist who doesn't listen "to anything composed past 1750," he laughs. "Art in general has survived since the dawn of human existence, and is found in all human societies. There must be some strong value associated with it," he added. "This study is maybe one step in the direction of acknowledging that there's a whole lot more out there to understand about what is valuable and rewarding in the human experience." Try it for yourself: Listen linkurl:here; to some of the most popular songs selected by participants. Which tunes give you a dopamine rush? Salimpoor, V.N., et al., "Anatomically distinct dopamine release during anticipation and experience of peak emotion to music," Nat Neuro, doi:10.1038/nn.2726.
**__Related stories:__***linkurl:Medical music;
[17th July 2009] *linkurl:Mental music;
[28th March 2008] *linkurl:Music in the genes;
[14th March 2006]


Avatar of: Ed Rybicki

Ed Rybicki

Posts: 82

January 11, 2011

My first reaction on reading the blurb to this was "Well, duh!!": OF COURSE music works like drugs & alcohol; that's why they go so well together!\n\nBut on reflection - and more thorough reading - I am educated and impressed. Great article; well thought-out, and now I can tell my kids something.\n\nI am not much impressed by the music choices, though: ONE LEd Zeppelin?? No Cream, or Procol Harum?? For shame...B-)\n\nIt's back to I go, then, to mine some gold. Like Free. And Bad Company. And - of course - more Zeppelin. Aaaaahhhh....
Avatar of: Craig Sagar

Craig Sagar

Posts: 1

January 13, 2011

How can the test be certain that it is the music that triggers the dopamine and not the users previous experiences that they assoiciate with that sound? The music is likely associated with a happy moment in the life of the participant. So it could equally be the trigger of a memory and not the sound that releases dopamine. \n\nLooking back at photos of my favourite past experience may also have the same effect? Favourite TV shows, video games?\n\nSounds to me like the participants are using the soundtrack to their personal happy place to remember a good experience. It is this that triggers the dopamine.
Avatar of: Bill Rudosky

Bill Rudosky

Posts: 1

January 19, 2011

This does seem like a "Wow, I hope they didn't spend too much on this research 'cuz I could have told them that for free" type of discovery. It's multiplied if you're playing the song and really nail it. Dopamine AND a personal triumph is better than dopamine alone.\n\n\n\n

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