Sounds of science: Music on the brain

Every June 21st the streets come to life for the biggest planetary musical celebration: “la fête de la musique”, also called “World Music Day”. The annual fiesta, launched in Paris in 1982, and now held in 120 countries sees all kinds of music ringing out from every street corner. But why does music affect us emotionally? Neuroscientist Valorie Salimpoor is searching the answer to this question - and many other music-related ones. DiscovHER looks at the science behind the melodies we love...

Music for survival?

Music, she points out, has existed in every culture since the dawn of time, and many of us draw euphoric experiences from it.

Her main area of study is how – and why - music is pleasurable to the brain.

Interestingly enough, our brain responds to music in a similar way to life’s other pleasures: sex or food.

When we listen to music we love, the brain releases dopamine, the feel-good hormone. By observing brain activity using a PET scanner, Salimpoor found that dopamine was being released twice, during the song’s so-called peak emotional moment – yet also 15 seconds before – in anticipation of that moment. 

It is amazing that we can release dopamine in anticipation of something abstract, complex and not concrete.

And the dopamine is released in the ventral striatum – the lower part of the brain that is linked to emotions. 

This basically explains why music has been around for so long. The intense pleasure we get from it is actually biologically reinforcing in the brain, and now here's proof for it.

But why, asks Salimpoor, while sex and food are vital for survival – does music have the same effect?


Musical tastes: so different yet so alike?

This dopamine effect is intensely personal. Salimpoor’s research demonstrated that dopamine levels can vary from a 6-9% - relative increase – to as much as 21% - according to whether you are listening to music you love yourself or to someone else’s favourite tunes. However in a fascinating result, Salimpoor found that the biggest dopamine hit in the classical genre was Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings followed by DJ Tiesto’s techno version of Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings, which is essentially the same melody.


Try before you buy

From observing the brain’s response, Salimpoor and her team are even able to go so far as predicting whether people will buy music or not. She created a mock-up iTunes where people listened to previously unheard music that was recommended for them with a chance to buy it. The more activity in the nucleus accumbens- the brain’s pleasure center- the more willing people were to pay for it. 

As they are listening to this music, we can look at their brain activity and figure out how they are appreciating or enjoying this music before they even tell us anything.

The music that made us

Interestingly the nucleus accumbens also interacts with another region of our brain called the auditory cortical storale - based on music we have been exposed to before. This explains why people become almost addicted to a certain genre of music – or respond particularly to music from their childhood. 

This part of the brain will be unique for each individual, because we've all heard different music in the past.

Composing the future

Is some music better able to create intense emotions, for example, to give us "goose bumps" than other music? What happens in the brain the very first time you start to like a piece of music? And how does knowing something about a piece of music impact the way our brain processes it? Salimpoor’s research continues to explore these questions and more. Thanks to her research, we already understand why music has the power to change our moods.


Do you feel music has an impact on your mood, or even, or your behaviour? Do you know any other scientists specializing on this very specific field? Let us know at @4womeninscience!


Valorie Salimpoor currently holds a postdoctoral Fellowship at theRoman Research Institute in Baycrest Hospital, (University of Toronto) She has a PhD in Psychology, Behavioral Neuroscience Training Program fromMcGill University and an M.A in Clinical Psychology of York University and has held the position of visiting scientist in Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, at Stanford University. 

L’Oréal–UNESCO
For Women in Science

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