Hi! I’m Emma and I’m currently living in Ireland after graduating in 2020 from my BSc in Biomedical Sciences from Newcastle University. For my dissertation, I learned a lot about the neurotransmitter dopamine that is frequently studied in Parkinson’s Disease. However, I became especially captivated by how dopamine functions in reward pathways associated with pleasurable experiences – like listening to music. Music has been a big part of my life since I was young. I wrote this article because I’m very interested in why music makes humans feel so good and why it helps us out so much sometimes.
Thank you for reading!
Nestled into human cultural norms all over the world are these addictive symphonies of rhythm, melody, and sound. Music helps us lament a bad break-up, can motivate us to get out of bed in the morning (George Michael’s Freedom is a motivational miracle), and can extinguish a bad day by flooding us with memories of good times.
But how and why can music make us feel so emotional, so understood and so motivated?
The answer is this amazing stuff called dopamine. Dopamine is a type of chemical called a neurotransmitter and is very involved in the reward pathways of our brain. It propels the feeling of satisfaction following a McDonalds cheeseburger, good sex, winning a game of monopoly against the odds, successful human interaction (hopefully there will be more of this in 2021) and a tune you enjoy.
The strange thing though, is that most of these activities like eating, sex and participating in community have always been important for human survival, therefore, it seems to make sense that behaviours keeping our species alive feel good and lead to an addictive dopamine reward from the brain.
So why does music give us the same rewarding response?
It comes down to music hijacking our brain’s mechanisms of learning. As we have evolved, humans have developed and conserved neural mechanisms that constantly make predictions about our environment, based on our past experiences.
When listening to music the brain will try to predict what happens next in a tune based on our prior understanding or exposure to melodies, rhythms, and cadence.
In one study, it was found that most people preferred music of intermediate complexity. It is thought this is because there is a ‘sweet spot’ in between predictability and uncertainty when listening to music.
The musical sweet spot
When the brain can correctly predict some of the musical stimuli, such as the words of a song or a repetitive beat, these predictions induce a dopamine release in the brain which can lead to what can be characterised as ‘good feelings’, and can interact with the brain’s limbic system causing the person to feel emotional.
However, a little uncertainty where the brain makes incorrect predictions, surprised by unexpected changes in beat or harmonies for example, have shown activity increase in the central area in the brain’s reward pathway – the nucleus accumbens. These errors allow the brain to adjust its predictions for the next time; forming a foundation informing how we learn, and keeping our brains active!
This hold on a person’s attention is like the pleasure humans experience when learning, like this man learning about 2020.
Learning through surprising information, for example where something unknown to be poisonous smells, is beneficial to humans as it helps them adapt to environmental changes and challenges.
Therefore learning, as well as sex and eating, uses the dopaminergic reward system to encourage humans to adapt and thrive.
Music of intermediate, manageable complexity hijacks this system as music that offers unexpected manageable surprises alongside being semi-predictable is perceived as a manageable challenge very pleasurable and motivational for a learning human brain.
Interestingly, studies have also shown that when humans are, in more uncertain situations their preferences shift towards more predictable music. This could possibly be as a source of comfort.
A social glue
Scientists theorise that music acts as the glue that helps bring human communities together. It has been shown that the brain regions very active in social situations are the same areas active when music plays.
Studies have found that when singers sing together, especially when improvising, the levels of oxytocin, a hormone involved in empathy, trust and relationship building, are raised. This is believed to aid humans in attracting and selecting mates, allowing mothers to bond with very young, nonverbal infants and in social bonding. Scientists have also found peoples’ sensitivity to pain is reduced when making music.
Here are some TED talks and papers that made me go “ooOOOoooh” and helped me write this article, thank you for reading! 😊