How the Brain Responds to Music

February 1st, 2011 | Sources: LA Times, MSNBC, Nature


Dead Heads have experienced it while listening to Jerry Garcia transition from Not Fade Away into Goin’ Down the Road Feeling Bad on the 1971 album, Skull and Roses. Jazz aficionados have as well, during any one of several McCoy Tyner solos on John Coltrane’s classic, A Love Supreme. And so have connoisseurs of classical music, who marvel at Jascha Heifetz’ stunning interpretations of Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto in D major (below).


In fact, just about everyone has enjoyed a sensation of pure euphoria as “that riff” plays out during a favorite piece of music. 

Recently, Robert Zatorre and Valorie Salimpoor of McGill University decided to study the neurobehavioral underpinnings of the phenomenon. Perhaps not surprisingly, they found that regardless of the type of music or the age or sophistication of the listener, that euphoric feeling can indeed be measured, and its neurochemical roots are quite similar from person to person.

In fact, the scientists showed that musical epiphanies feature increased heart and breathing rates, and the release of dopamine in certain areas of the brain. Dopamine is the same neurotransmitter that’s released when humans experience similarly intense sensations of pleasure associated with tangible rewards like a good meal, sexual gratification, or the ingestion of certain addictive drugs.

To reach these conclusions, the scientists recruited 8 volunteers and asked them to listen to, in order, a favorite musical passage of their choosing and then a decidedly uninspiring selection that was chosen for them.

The volunteers selected a broad range of music, including jazz, punk and classical. The scientists hooked-up the subjects to all sorts of monitoring devices and also observed their brain activity using positron emission tomography (PET) scans and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) tests.

The volunteers were instructed to press a button when they began experiencing a strong, positive reaction to the music.

The imaging tests of the brain showed a pulse of dopamine in the caudate nucleus beginning 15 or so seconds before the moment volunteers pressed the button, and a separate dopamine pulse in the nearby nucleus accumbens when their favorite riff finally arrived.

That made sense to the authors, who explained that the former area is known to be “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.”

Incidentally, other scientists have showed that viewing art stimulates the same neural circuitry in the brain. It’s pretty cool to think that, in addition to physical needs like food and sex, abstract stimuli like music and art can prompt feelings of euphoria.

The write-up appears in Nature Neuroscience. 



  1. shine | 8/02/12

    Great Read and very informative. I believe that the brain very well reacts and responds to music very well. Be it rock then you will find yourself in an agressive state and if its melody or sad love song, you tend to get mellow and cry for just about so little things. So yes, i do believe that music can be a big autorespondent to the brain.

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