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Cambridge University Science Magazine
A new study reveals that pleasurable music engages reward-related neurocircuitry. Scientists found that discovering a new favourite song activates similar reward circuitry involved in the pleasure we get from delicious food or drugs like cocaine. In the study, conducted by Salimpoor and colleagues, 19 volunteers were played 30 second samples of 60 songs they had never heard before and were then asked to bid on how much they were willing to pay for each track. Whilst multiple brain regions were activated in response to a favourite song, only activity in the nucleus accumbens, part of the brain’s reward circuitry, was well correlated with how much participants were willing to pay.

It was already known that dopamine mediates the intense emotional response –‘chills’ – associated with a favourite piece of music. Dopamine, a neurochemical associated with reward, establishes and maintains behaviour that is biologically necessary. For instance, food, sex and drugs all produce intense pleasure and are associated with dopamine release in the striatum. These findings help to explain how an abstract stimulus such as music, with no intrinsic reward value, moves people of all cultures.

The nucleus accumbens is not the only brain region involved in the musical experience. It appears that both cortical and subcortical regions work together to assign value to an abstract stimulus like music. The study found increased interactions between the nucleus accumbens and a number of cortical regions, in particular the superior temporal gyrus, when participants heard a new favourite song. The superior temporal gyrus encompasses the auditory cortex and acts like a music library, storing templates of previously heard music that are unique to each person. Thus, whilst music people like leads to similar brain activity in the nucleus accumbens, different tastes reflect a unique auditory cortex.

Salimpoor’s study provides neurochemical evidence that intense emotional responses to music involve ancient reward circuitry and are a first step in unravelling the neurobiological substrates of abstract forms of pleasure.

doi: 10.1038/nn.2726

Written by Camilla d’Angelo.