What is your favorite part of your favorite song? Is it hearing that first note? Or maybe it’s the first time you hear your favorite artist start singing? For me, and many others, my favorite part of the song is the climax (or “drop”) of my favorite song. That is the moment when everything the song has been working towards is fulfilled and the listener is flushed with a feeling of satisfaction. What is it about music that gives us this feeling of satisfaction, and how to musical artists take advantage of the neuroscience behind science production to make it as pleasurable as possible for us?
I want to start by giving a basic overview of all the brain regions that become activated once someone begins to listen to music. When music begins playing, our frontal and temporal lobes begin to pick up and interpret the notes and sounds coming into our brains. Then, if the music has lyrics, many brain areas associated with language become activated. In addition, music often evokes memories due to a variety of factors, which constitute the medial prefrontal cortex to be activated. But why is music so pleasurable? In a study done in 2010, researchers found that when music is played, dopamine release happens in both the dorsal and ventral striatum (Salimpoor et al., 2010). What is interesting about this initial finding is that these brain areas are often associated with other pleasurable stimuli such as sex, drugs, and food.
However, that was not the really interesting finding of their study. The really interesting thing they found was that dopamine release was not highest at the participants most liked part/climax of the song. What they found instead was a large release of dopamine before that climax in the song happened. Why does this happen? One would generally think that the most dopamine release would happen during the their favorite part, but the researchers found differently.
To answer this question you have to understand that music causes you to feel. The emotions that music evokes are incredibly powerful and many are very pleasurable. It is in the experience of these emotions that keep us coming back for more, that cause the pleasurable stimulus for us. The researchers found that incredibly emotional moments were associated with dopamine release in your nucleus accumbens, a region that is often associated with interpreting pleasurable stimuli like cocaine and food. But even so, greater dopamine release was found in the anticipation of this event.
What this all means is that throughout our lives, we are conditioned to enjoy certain things. And through our experiences, our reward pathways keep us coming back for those certain stimuli. Sometimes these stimuli have evolutionary reasons, such as food or sex, and other times they don’t such as music and drugs. But what happens through this process is an expectation of what will come. For example, the lead up to eating a chocolate donut is so pleasurable because you have an abstract understanding of a previous pleasurable experience awaiting you. This same idea is translated when you are listening to music. Right before the climax, you have an abstract expectation of pleasurable emotions that you are about to feel, and it is in that anticipation that the high release of dopamine occurs, and why music is so pleasurable for us.
Artists take advantage of this anticipation all of the time in the way they change song structure and chords. By changing up what a person expects is going to happen, an even greater release in dopamine occurs due to the greater intensity of emotion that happens because of that break in expectation. This is why we, as humans, have always been drawn to music. The anticipation of emotional responses give us such pleasure, and it is in the variety that artists make that continue to make music pleasurable forever.
Salimpoor et al., (2010). Anatomically distinct dopamine release during anticipation and experience of peak emotion to music. Nature and Neuroscience, 14(2), 257-264.