Why 'music makes our brain sing'

Aug 16, 2013

For many people, music evokes an emotional response of pleasure. Neurologist Dr. Robert Zatorre, of McGill University in Montreal, has studied why our favorite songs cause those feelings. He recently wrote about his findings in a New York Times article "Why Music Makes our Brain Sing." And, as Dr. Zatorre told Lorraine Rapp and Linda Lowen, hosts of WRVO's health and wellness show "Take Care," the answer lies in the way the brain processes anticipation and reward.

Lorraine Rapp:  What has your research revealed as to why music affects us the way it does?

Dr. Zatorre: What’s remarkable about it perhaps is that unlike other things that are valuable, music doesn’t have any specific biological value. In other words, you can’t eat it, it doesn’t keep you warm in the winter, you can’t mate with it. In other words, it’s truly abstract. It’s a pattern of sounds, and yet people find it immensely rewarding. And in our research we’ve found that many of the same circuits of the brain that are typically associated with those what we would call those primary rewards, like food for instance, are also engaged by music.

Lorraine Rapp: You describe a peak emotional moment when you feel a chill of pleasure that causes the release of dopamine. Explain how that works; what have you discovered?

Dr. Zatorre: In order to study this, it’s actually pretty tricky because different people have different responses to music and it’s very hard to pinpoint exactly what’s going on. And so we thought that we could capitalize on this experience that many, but not all, people have to particular passages of music where it’s so beautiful and so emotionally engaging that you feel a chill or shivers down the spine or that kind of sensation. And what’s cool about that is that when it happens we can actually detect it by measuring things like changes in skin conductance or in heart rate. So that gives us an objective measurement of what’s going on subjectively in a person’s mind. And so once we’ve identified that music, we can put people in a certain kind of brain scanning machine that allows us to trace the activity of certain molecules and then we see that at that peak moment there is a release of this neurotransmitter called dopamine, so that’s a chemical messenger, that is really associated with a lot of these primary rewards. So if you take an animal and you train it to receive a food reward for a particular action, you will see dopamine neurons firing, often in anticipation of the food that’s going to come up. And so we’re drawing a link between this very abstract, what we might call a cognitive reward, which is music, to a very basic biological function that has to do with survival, such as obtaining food.

Linda Lowen: So why is it significant that dopamine gets released in anticipation of that pleasurable moment?

Dr. Zatorre:  A lot of people have considered that the brain is kind of a prediction machine. In order to survive in the environment, you have to anticipate what’s going to happen to you and take actions to either prevent something bad from happening or to obtain something good. But on the musical side, when we talk to musicologists and to musicians, composers, music theorists, many of them tell us that there’s a remarkably similar phenomenon where if you have a pattern of sounds, let’s say a chord progression, you will be led to anticipate a particular ending to that chord progression. And everyone knows what this is. When you’re hearing a piece of music, you have an anticipation of when let’s say a chord will come or a series of chords will resolve. And we think that that’s, in part, why music has such power. It’s because that mechanism allowing us to anticipate future events has been sort of capitalized on by music to, in a sense, engage that ancient reward prediction mechanism. And even though we don’t get an actual physical reward, we get a kind of intellectual reward or a cognitive reward which in turn leads to an emotional response and that’s the chill.

More of this interview can be heard on "Take Care," WRVO's health and wellness show Sundays at 6:30 p.m.  Support for this story comes from the Health Foundation for Western and Central New York.

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