Listening to enjoyable music activates reward centers deep inside the brain, specifically the subcortical nuclei which is known to be important in reward, motivation and emotion. When we listen to an individual song that we like, researchers have found the brain releases dopamine, a chemical strongly associated with pleasurable feelings. “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.”
What’s the Big Idea?
There are two specific points at which the brain releases dopamine when experiencing musical notes: Once upon hearing the notes we like and, curiously, once in anticipation of hearing them. “These cortical circuits allow us to make predictions about coming events on the basis of past events. They are thought to accumulate musical information over our lifetime, creating templates of the statistical regularities that are present in the music of our culture and enabling us to understand the music we hear in relation to our stored mental representations of the music we’ve heard.”
Neuroscience is still one of biology’s newest fields and the extent to which human behavior can be explained exclusively in terms of blood flow to specific regions of the brain remains highly in doubt.