Why Music Makes Our Brain Sing

Robert J. Zatorre and Valorie N. Salimpoor, for the New York Times:

More than a decade ago, our research team used brain imaging to show that music that people described as highly emotional engaged the reward system deep in their brains — activating subcortical nuclei known to be important in reward, motivation and emotion. Subsequently we found that listening to what might be called “peak emotional moments” in music — that moment when you feel a “chill” of pleasure to a musical passage — causes the release of the neurotransmitter dopamine, an essential signaling molecule in the brain.

When pleasurable music is heard, dopamine is released in the striatum — an ancient part of the brain found in other vertebrates as well — which is known to respond to naturally rewarding stimuli like food and sex and which is artificially targeted by drugs like cocaine and amphetamine.

But what may be most interesting here is when this neurotransmitter is released: not only when the music rises to a peak emotional moment, but also several seconds before, during what we might call the anticipation phase.

I know people for whom music is a background thing, which is fine. I can even admire that. But for me, a good piece of music stops me in my tracks. I can’t multitask to it. All I can see is the shapes and colors.

I remember the first time I heard Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis. I was in the car, and had to pull it over to the side of the road. The goosebumps it gave me were painful. I really do think the piece is that shatteringly good — so much so that I have to avoid listening to it.