Sex, Drugs, and Rock & Roll: One and the Same to the Brain


Despite a wide range of types and amounts of musical engagement within our species, very few are immune to its acoustic pleasures.  From the casual admirer of pop music to professional performers, music has forced its way into almost all of our minds and helps us thrive. But why?  It does not nourish us like food or protect us from environmental dangers. At first it seems cerebral and superfluous, but current research on music and the brain suggests that it may be more significant. A 2011 study by Salimpoor and colleagues showed that music is biologically relevant.  This is meaningful because normally, music is thought of as a sort of decorative, cultural phenomenon to our species; it is important, but not essential like food, water, and sex, all of which are indisputably biologically relevant.  But, perhaps it has persisted for so long in our species because our brains respond to music as they do to food, water, and sex.

This study used positron emission tomography (PET).  PET is a brain imaging technique that lets researchers see how neurotransmitters (the chemicals that allow brain cells to communicate) are acting in a designated region of the brain.  The neurotransmitter of interest here is called dopamine.  Dopamine is commonly thought of as the “pleasure” neurotransmitter, making us feel warm and happy when it is active in the brain.  This is not entirely accurate, but for the sake of this study, know that dopamine activity is needed for something to be rewarding, and worth doing again (such as… music!).

The research team had people select pieces of music that induced a “chill response” at a specific moment in the piece every time they heard it.  “Chill response” may not be a very scientifically well-defined term, but we all know it.  Some things “move” us to a point of physiological reaction:  tingles on our backs, a rush of blood through our veins.  These responses were recorded in the participants using several measurements such as heart rate and skin conductance (sweating).  Indeed, they showed physiological reactions to their selected pieces at the same moment each time they listened.

What’s important is that the time of these physiological responses was the same moment that they pressed a button to indicate feeling a “peak experience,” and the same moment that the PET machine detected dopamine.

So yes, the good feelings we get from music are associated with dopamine.  But it gets better…

Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) was used to see more precisely where the dopamine was acting.  (To clarify, the PET showed what chemical was involved, and the fMRI showed where it was involved).  It turns out that the dopamine acted first in one place (the caudate, for you neuro-nerds) when people were anticipating the peak experience to music, and then acted in another place (the nucleus accumbens) when the actual experience occurred.  This is the same neural pattern seen in responses to biological necessities.

What is music? An intangible arrangement of sound.  Yet, we obsess over it and venerate those who create it.  So why do our brains treat it like sex and drugs, which are tangible chemical and tactile stimuli?  Perhaps it was an evolutionary fluke that our brains developed to be able to process sound in the same way they process rewards.  Or, maybe we do need music.  Plenty of studies indicate that it is holistically beneficial.  Regardless, it has earned a place in our brain alongside sex and food, and that is saying something.  We’re just not sure what yet…

One of my personal peak experience moments can be heard in the finale of Beethoven’s 9th symphony.

My response is at 13:28.  Start at 13:00 to hear the anticipation. Keep in mind that this effect is only for personally familiar pieces of music.


Stay tuned for more music neuro-news.  In the meantime, consider what arrangement of sounds drives you mad with anticipation, and thank your dopamine for the results.


Source cited: Salimpoor, V.N., Benovoy, M., Larcher, K., Dagher, A., & Zatorre, R.J. (2011).  Anatomically distinct dopamine release during anticipation and experience of peak emotion to music.  Nature Neuroscience, 14, 257-262.

Image Source:  StaticFlickr

Ian Colley