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New research reveals the root of musical pleasure


January 24, 2011

Researcher Valorie Salimpoor and colleague Mitchel Benovoy observe a volunteer as she listens to some of her favorite music

Researcher Valorie Salimpoor and colleague Mitchel Benovoy observe a volunteer as she listens to some of her favorite music

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We all know that certain pieces of music can evoke strong emotional responses in people. Now, a research team from Canada's McGill University has uncovered evidence that reveals exactly what causes such feelings of euphoria and ecstasy and why music is so important in human society. Using a combination of brain scanning technologies, the study has shown that the same neurotransmitter which is associated with feeling pleasure from sex and food is released in the brain when listening to good music.

That humans can derive intense pleasure from such things as food, drugs, money and sex is well known. All of these feelings of reward generally involve the activity of a certain neurotransmitter in the brain – dopamine. It's a mechanism that's necessary for survival, caused by psychoactive drugs or by tangible items which offer secondary rewards of some kind.

Abstract external stimuli, like music or art, can often trigger heightened pleasure responses in people, even though they can't be thought of as vital for survival or the result of conditioned reinforcement. They are perceived as being rewarding rather than actually having a direct or chemical influence.

Music's effect on our emotional state is, of course, also well-known – as witnessed by the increase in our population as result of recordings by Barry White or Etta James, or the floods of tears accompanying a moving piece from Bach or Beethoven. Previous neuroimaging studies have hinted that the emotion and reward circuits in the brain have a lot to do with the sensations experienced when listening to good music.

Researchers Valorie N. Salimpoor, Mitchel Benovoy, Kevin Larcher, Alain Dagher and Dr. Robert Zatorre from the Montreal Neurological Institute and Hospital at McGill University and the Centre for Interdisciplinary Research in Music, Media, and Technology have now provided direct evidence.

Even though we know what pleasure is, it's a phenomenon that's difficult to assess objectively. However, highly pleasurable experiences often result in noticeable physiological symptoms like changes in electrodermal activity, heart rate, respiration and so on – this "chills" response can therefore be measured. This measurement can be used to determine the exact moment of heightened pleasure, to help pinpoint what's going on in the brain when the chills response kicks in.

As musical tastes vary considerably, participants in the study were asked to choose their own pieces of highly pleasurable music. Volunteers were also asked to identify a piece of neutral music for control purposes, that was not unpleasant but didn't elicit any sort of heightened emotional response. Music used in the study included classical works by Beethoven, Chopin and Tchaikovsky, film scores from A Clockwork Orange and Kill Bill, Flamenco guitar by Rodrigo Y Gabriela and rock from Led Zeppelin, as well as jazz, blues, techno and folk.

Each volunteer went through two testing sessions, one with the neutral music and one with the pleasure music of choice. Positron Emission Tomography (PET) brain imaging revealed increased endogenous dopamine transmission during the pleasure session compared to the neutral session, confirming the association between musical enjoyment and dopamine release in the mesolimbic and mesostriatal reward systems. The research team also wanted to discover whether the release of dopamine was associated with the actual reward of listening to music or from the anticipation of what's to come.

PET does not give the kind of temporal resolution necessary for the examination of this kind of distinction, so the team also sought the help of a Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) machine. During the fMRI stage of the testing, volunteers were asked to indicate when they experienced peak emotional responses to the same pieces of music. This information was then used to identify anticipations and peak experience time points.

The results showed that the release of dopamine was not constant throughout the whole piece but restricted to moments prior to and during peak moments. Activity was found to fire in the caudate region of the brain when the listener anticipated the emotional high, whereas during the experience itself, dopamine release was concentrated in the striatum system.

"Music is unique in the sense that we can measure all reward phases in real-time, as it progresses from baseline neutral to anticipation to peak pleasure all during scanning," says lead investigator Salimpoor. "It is generally a great challenge to examine dopamine activity during both the anticipation and the consumption phase of a reward. Both phases are captured together online by the PET scanner, which, combined with the temporal specificity of fMRI provides us with a unique assessment of the distinct contributions of each brain region at different time points."

The experiments are said to "provide the first direct evidence that the intense pleasure experienced to music is associated with dopamine activity in the mesolimbic reward system, including both dorsal and ventral striatum." They further show that the anticipation of sonic pleasure also results in reward systems being activated, and that the activity is concentrated in a different area of the brain than the actual experience.

The paper, entitled Anatomically distinct dopamine release during anticipation and experience of peak emotion to music, has been published in the journal Nature Neuroscience.

About the Author
Paul Ridden While Paul is loath to reveal his age, he will admit to cutting his IT teeth on a TRS-80 (although he won't say which version). An obsessive fascination with computer technology blossomed from hobby into career before the desire for sunnier climes saw him wave a fond farewell to his native Blighty in favor of Bordeaux, France. He's now a dedicated newshound pursuing the latest bleeding edge tech for Gizmag. All articles by Paul Ridden

If we\'re all about the dopamine activity, then why doesn\'t human society eliminate music altogether and shoot up with dopamine? Try looking into bioresonance rather than neurochemistry, then you might find something \"new.\"


Because what\'s more fun? Sitting in your bathtub with a needle stuck in your arm, or doing some Bacardi shots, smokin\' a lil\' sumthin sumthin, and heading out to the Lady Gaga show? I\'ll let you answer that one. And the bioresonance theory is only a few years newer than established neurochemistry, where as--while logically the former makes sense--the latter has managed to find legitimacy through proven testing and results, while after more than 50 years, the other has not. I mean, wormholes also theoretically exist, but you gonna jump off your roof hoping to catch one going to L.A, or you gonna head for the airport?

Say hi to L. Ron.


Hmm. I thought for sure the title of the article was \"New research reveals the root of musical pleasure\". There is nothing in this article that discusses the root (cause) of music being pleasurable. Ok, so we\'ve only previously speculated that dopamine was the RESULT of listening to music, just as is the case of involvement in other endeavors we enjoy. Still... WHAT CAUSES this release? What is it about certain kinds of music particular to an individual that causes the release? THAT is the interesting question to answer.

Sure, the simple answer is that that is simply how the \"like\" / \"pleasure\" system works. However, it seems it is more intriguing and rewarding to determine the trigger. Is it some special kind of resonance (certainly not bioresonance) that occurs with the firing of auditory neurons with some kind of continuous feedback with the amygdala or other area of the limbic system? Perhaps the resolution of our probing technology is just not fine enough yet on both spatial and temporal dimensions to make those types of analyses.


Ultimate pleasure...put on the rock cd ,grab a slice of pie and head for the bedroom :-)

Great article

Phil Magor

Dear \"kalqlate\", As a former professional musician, I too was left \"Standing at the alter\", so to speak regarding the genesis of the emotive power of music left unexplained in this article. The \"How\" of it, does not answer the \"Why\" of it. One does, however, have to be mindful of technology being highjacked for nefarious purposes. \"Big Brother\" was more than just a fictional character. He was and is \"Big ...\" you name it, always lurking out there to use whatever technologies are available to further His/Her/Their agendas. Another way of \"looking\" at this line of research is: Just because you know all the technical details of how and why some sunsets and/or sunrise\'s evoke emotional responses, does that really explain why those emotions are evoked. Would they be diminished, or even, perish the thought, eliminated if you knew they were being artificially created?

Myron J. Poltroonian

The research would be more complete if it included the negative effects also. For example music written for horror movies.

It is a well know fact that heavy bass frequencies can make you sick or even destroy internal organs but even a karaoke can cause neighbors extreme discomfort leading to bad temper and rage.

Facebook User

\"Facebook User\", You noted: \"even a karaoke can cause neighbors extreme discomfort leading to bad temper and rage.\" I concur. Especially if you have an ear for music.

Myron J. Poltroonian

I\'d like to know: 1. Does our body have a reserve store of dopamine and it\'s replenished. 2. Does our body only produce dopamine on the fly as needed. 3. Can our body only produce dopamine for a finite amount of time before it needs rest or time before it can produce it again.

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