How anticipation and reward make the brain love music

Aug 18, 2013

It’s hard to make it through the day without listening to music whether it is on the radio, a computer or a portable mp3 player. But why do we get so happy listening to our favorite song, singing in the shower or even learning to play a musical instrument? This week on “Take Care,” we talk to Dr. Robert Zatorre, a professor of neuroscience at the Montreal Neurological Institute and Hospital at McGill University, on why music makes our brains sing.

Click 'Read More' to hear our interview with Dr. Robert Zatorre.

Dr. Zatorre said that part of understanding the human condition is understanding art, what he considers one of the most important things humans produce.

“If we want to understand the human condition, broadly, we want to understand why is it that humans produce art and music is a particular interesting form of art,” Dr. Zatorre said.

Music has no biological value to humans, meaning you can’t eat it and it won’t keep people warm in the winter, but it is still something humans value.

Dr. Zatorre admits that one of the most difficult things about studying the effects of music on the brain is that people respond differently to different types of music. Some people like jazz, others like country and some people prefer classical, non-lyrical music.

But what is similar for most people is that their brain anticipates the peak moment of pleasure in a piece of music, and releases dopamine, which is associated with primary rewards, like food. Dr. Zatorre said the reaction is similar to a trained animal anticipating a treat as a reward. Except, he says, instead of a concrete reward, a person is getting an emotional or cognitive reward from the music.

But how are we able to release dopamine before the peak point actually occurs in the song? Humans are very good at anticipating, Dr. Zatorre said. In fact, the human brain does an excellent job at predicting things in the short, medium and long term. Being exposed to music throughout our youth helps us understand the rules and patterns in music, like how a chord resolves, he said. That means we are able to anticipate these patterns in music and release that dopamine before the pattern occurs.

There are some people, however, that have no such response to music. Dr. Zatorre says it doesn’t mean that a person it depressed or can’t feel.

“These are perfectly normal people,” he said. “They just don’t get a great deal out of pleasure out of music. And so there may be some different wiring of people’s brains.”

Dr. Zatorre said that understanding how music affects the brain could have effects on our general health in the future. Music therapy is becoming even more common to help treat movement related disorders, like Parkinson’s disease. Dr. Zatorre said that many music therapists are hoping for more basic science to help figure out the best way to use music as therapy, and he says he hopes to delve even deeper into the topic.