Why Music Makes Our Brain Sing
JUNE 7, 2013 By ROBERT J. ZATORRE and VALORIE N. SALIMPOO
MUSIC is not tangible. You can’t eat it, drink it or mate with it. It doesn’t protect against the rain, wind or cold. It doesn’t vanquish predators or mend broken bones. And yet humans have always prized music — or well beyond prized, loved it.
In the modern age we spend great sums of money to attend concerts, download music files, play instruments and listen to our favorite artists whether we’re in a subway or salon. But even in Paleolithic times, people invested significant time and effort to create music, as the discovery of flutes carved from animal bones would suggest.
So why does this thingless “thing” — at its core, a mere sequence of sounds — hold such potentially enormous intrinsic value?
The quick and easy explanation is that music brings a unique pleasure to humans. Of course, that still leaves the question of why. But for that, neuroscience is starting to provide some answers.
More than a decade ago, our research team used brain imaging to show that music that people described as highly emotional engaged the reward system deep in their brains — activating subcortical nuclei known to be important in reward, motivation and emotion. Subsequently we found that listening to what might be called “peak emotional moments” in music — that moment when you feel a “chill” of pleasure to a musical passage — causes the release of the neurotransmitter dopamine, an essential signaling molecule in the brain.
When pleasurable music is heard, dopamine is released in the striatum — an ancient part of the brain found in other vertebrates as well — which is known to respond to naturally rewarding stimuli like food and sex and which is artificially targeted by drugs like cocaine and amphetamine.
But what may be most interesting here is when this neurotransmitter is released: not only when the music rises to a peak emotional moment, but also several seconds before, during what we might call the anticipation phase.
The idea that reward is partly related to anticipation (or the prediction of a desired outcome) has a long history in neuroscience. Making good predictions about the outcome of one’s actions would seem to be essential in the context of survival, after all. And dopamine neurons, both in humans and other animals, play a role in recording which of our predictions turn out to be correct.
To dig deeper into how music engages the brain’s reward system, we designed a study to mimic online music purchasing. Our goal was to determine what goes on in the brain when someone hears a new piece of music and decides he likes it enough to buy it.
We used music-recommendation programs to customize the selections to our listeners’ preferences, which turned out to be indie and electronic music, matching Montreal’s hip music scene. And we found that neural activity within the striatum — the reward-related structure — was directly proportional to the amount of money people were willing to spend.
But more interesting still was the cross talk between this structure and the auditory cortex, which also increased for songs that were ultimately purchased compared with those that were not.
Why the auditory cortex? Some 50 years ago, Wilder Penfield, the famed neurosurgeon and the founder of the Montreal Neurological Institute, reported that when neurosurgical patients received electrical stimulation to the auditory cortex while they were awake, they would sometimes report hearing music. Dr. Penfield’s observations, along with those of many others, suggest that musical information is likely to be represented in these brain regions.
The auditory cortex is also active when we imagine a tune: think of the first four notes of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony — your cortex is abuzz! This ability allows us not only to experience music even when it’s physically absent, but also to invent new compositions and to reimagine how a piece might sound with a different tempo or instrumentation.
We also know that these areas of the brain encode the abstract relationships between sounds — for instance, the particular sound pattern that makes a major chord major, regardless of the key or instrument. Other studies show distinctive neural responses from similar regions when there is an unexpected break in a repetitive pattern of sounds, or in a chord progression. This is akin to what happens if you hear someone play a wrong note — easily noticeable even in an unfamiliar piece of music.
These cortical circuits allow us to make predictions about coming events on the basis of past events. They are thought to accumulate musical information over our lifetime, creating templates of the statistical regularities that are present in the music of our culture and enabling us to understand the music we hear in relation to our stored mental representations of the music we’ve heard.
So each act of listening to music may be thought of as both recapitulating the past and predicting the future. When we listen to music, these brain networks actively create expectations based on our stored knowledge.
Composers and performers intuitively understand this: they manipulate these prediction mechanisms to give us what we want — or to surprise us, perhaps even with something better.
In the cross talk between our cortical systems, which analyze patterns and yield expectations, and our ancient reward and motivational systems, may lie the answer to the question: does a particular piece of music move us?
When that answer is yes, there is little — in those moments of listening, at least — that we value more.
By CBSNEWSCBS/APJanuary 10, 2011, 10:49 AM
Study: Music Gives Brain Pleasure Rush
NEW YORK - Whether it's the Beatles or Beethoven, people like music for the same reason they like eating or having sex: It makes the brain release a chemical that gives pleasure, a new study says.
The brain substance is involved both in anticipating a particularly thrilling musical moment and in feeling the rush from it, researchers found.
Previous work had already suggested a role for dopamine, a substance brain cells release to communicate with each other. But the new work, which scanned people's brains as they listened to music, shows it happening directly.
While dopamine normally helps us feel the pleasure of eating or having sex, it also helps produce euphoria from illegal drugs. It's active in particular circuits of the brain.
The tie to dopamine helps explain why music is so widely popular across cultures, Robert Zatorre and Valorie Salimpoor of McGill University in Montreal write in an article posted online Sunday by the journal Nature Neuroscience.
The study used only instrumental music, showing that voices aren't necessary to produce the dopamine response, Salimpoor said. It will take further work to study how voices might contribute to the pleasure effect, she said.
The researchers described brain-scanning experiments with eight volunteers who were chosen because they reliably felt chills from particular moments in some favorite pieces of music. That characteristic let the experimenters study how the brain handles both anticipation and arrival of a musical rush.
Results suggested that people who enjoy music but don't feel chills are also experiencing dopamine's effects, Zatorre said.
PET scans showed the participants' brains pumped out more dopamine in a region called the striatum when listening to favorite pieces of music than when hearing other pieces. Functional MRI scans showed where and when those releases happened.
Dopamine surged in one part of the striatum during the 15 seconds leading up to a thrilling moment, and a different part when that musical highlight finally arrived.
Zatorre said that makes sense: The area linked to anticipation connects with parts of the brain involved with making predictions and responding to the environment, while the area reacting to the peak moment itself is linked to the brain's limbic system, which is involved in emotion.
The study volunteers chose a wide range of music - from classical and jazz to punk, tango and even bagpipes. The most popular were Barber's "Adagio for Strings," the second movement of Beethoven's "Ninth Symphony" and Debussy's "Claire de Lune."
Since they already knew the musical pieces they listened to, it wasn't possible to tell whether the anticipation reaction came from memory or the natural feel people develop for how music unfolds, Zatorre said. That question is under study, too.
Dr. Gottfried Schlaug, an expert on music and the brain at Harvard Medical School, called the study "remarkable" for the combination of techniques it used.
While experts had indirect indications that music taps into the dopamine system, he said, the new work "really nails it."
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