Whether it’s the Beatles or Beethoven, people like music for the same reason they like eating or having sex: It makes the brain release a chemical that gives pleasure, a new study says.
The brain substance is involved both in anticipating a particularly thrilling musical moment and in feeling the rush from it, researchers found.
Previous work had already suggested a role for dopamine, a substance brain cells release to communicate with each other. But the new work, which scanned people’s brains as they listened to music, shows it happening directly.
While dopamine normally helps us feel the pleasure of eating or having sex, it also helps produce euphoria from illegal drugs. It’s active in particular circuits of the brain.
The tie to dopamine helps explain why music is so widely popular across cultures, Robert Zatorre and Valorie Salimpoor of McGill University in Montreal write in an article posted online Sunday by the journal Nature Neuroscience.
The study used only instrumental music, showing that voices aren’t necessary to produce the dopamine response, Salimpoor said. It will take further work to study how voices might contribute to the pleasure effect, she said.
The study volunteers chose a wide range of music – from classical and jazz to punk, tango and even bagpipes. The most popular were Barber’s Adagio for Strings, the second movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and Debussy’s Claire de Lune.
Those are my favorite compositions.