Music Causes Pleasurable Response in the Brain

Do you get goosebumps or the chills when listening to certain songs? According to new research results, this reaction takes place because your brain is responding to the music in the same way as it would to good food or addictive drugs.

It has now been determined that this pleasurable response to music is directly due to the release of the chemical dopamine in the brain. Dopamine forms part of the brain’s reward circuitry and is released when we do something that the brain wants us to do again, such as eating delicious food. It was previously thought that music somehow indirectly involved the dopamine system, but the new research has provided proof of the direct relationship between the two.

Researchers at McGill University in Montreal conducted the groundbreaking research. The project, headed by Valorie Salimpoor, required participants to bring along a selection of their favorite instrumental music. Music with lyrics was not permitted so that the study’s results would not be affected by associations the participants may have to certain words. The music genres varied from electronic dance music, to classical, punk and rock.

By means of PET scans and fMRI tests, the researchers were able to see the increased levels of dopamine when the subjects got the chills. They also monitored participants’ heart rates, temperatures and breathing rates to get the exact timing of the body and brain’s response relative to the music. It was also discovered that dopamine activity increased in the striatum of the brain in the 15 seconds before the most thrilling section of music, demonstrating that the pleasure chemical is released even during periods of anticipation.

During the study, the researchers found that the subjects had a six to nine percent increase in dopamine levels when listening to the music they enjoyed, when compared to the levels while listening to other music. For some individuals the experience is extremely intense, as revealed when one subject’s dopamine levels increased by twenty-one percent.

The brain’s reaction to music helps us to understand just why music is so valued in society. It also provides insight into why music in rituals, film and marketing are so effective. Salimpoor’s conclusion? “Our findings provide neurochemical evidence that intense emotional responses to music involve ancient reward circuitry and serve as a starting point for more detailed investigations of the biological substrates that underlie abstract forms of pleasure.”