Neuroscientists Uncover Why the Brain Enjoys Music

Music Brain

Neuroimaging studies reveal similarities in how the brain’s reward circuits process music and other rewards, such as food, money, and alcohol.

Interaction between auditory and reward brain circuits underpins musical pleasure.

Communication between the brain’s auditory and reward circuits is the reason why humans find music rewarding, according to new research published in JNeurosci.

Despite no obvious biological benefits, humans love music. Neuroimaging studies highlight similarities between how the brain’s reward circuits process music and other rewards like food, money, and alcohol. Yet neuroimaging studies are correlational by nature. In a new study, Mas-Herrero et al. sought to nail down the causal role of this circuitry by using non-invasive brain stimulation.

Why the Brain Enjoys Music

Greater induced pleasure differences was associated with increased synchronized activity between auditory and reward regions. Credit: Mas-Herrero et al., JNeurosci 2021

A group of pop music fans listened to a set of pop songs while the research team measured their brain activity with fMRI. Before the scan, the team indirectly excited or inhibited the brain’s reward circuit with transcranial magnetic stimulation.

Exciting the reward circuit prior to hearing music increased the pleasure participants felt when listening to the songs, while inhibiting it decreased pleasure. These induced pleasure changes were linked to changes in activity in the nucleus accumbens, a key region of the reward circuit. The participants with the greatest difference in pleasure also showed the greatest difference in synchronized activity between auditory and reward regions.

These results indicate interactions between auditory and reward regions drive the pleasure we feel when listening to music.

Reference: “Unraveling the Temporal Dynamics of Reward Signals in Music-Induced Pleasure with TMS” by Ernest Mas-Herrero, Alain Dagher, Marcel Farrés-Franch and Robert J. Zatorre, 27 April 2021, Journal of Neuroscience.
DOI: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.0727-20.2020

Funding: Canadian Institutes of Health Research, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research, the Canada Fund for Innovation, and the CIBC Fellowship in Brain Imaging

20 Comments on "Neuroscientists Uncover Why the Brain Enjoys Music"

  1. Fascinating articles in regard to music and the brain, music and learning , music and the listener. Music and emotions, what is it like without hearing music, hearing in general, particularly in individual cases. Fascinating. Many personal examples , am sure

  2. What’s the control? Did it compare stimulation of music people didn’t like? Random noise, etc?

    What exactly is the story here? Of course there’s going to be a direct correlation between the part of the brain that functions as a reward center and the part of the brain that enables people to participate in the things they enjoy.

    This story should be about “*How* the brain enjoys music” the head line of “why” the brain enjoys music is somewhat misleading…

  3. Jonathan Smith | March 31, 2021 at 6:19 am | Reply

    Sorry this is a real “Captain Obvious” conclusion.
    People like music because it stimulates the area of the brain producing pleasure.
    Sorry but that’s a real “Duh!” observation.
    Of more interest would be the “why” such auditory stimulation provokes a pleasure response.
    Take a kitten’s purr – most people find that a pleasurable sensation. But why?
    People also take pleasure in birdsong. But *why*? They do not appear to convey any benefit to survival.
    So – let’s do some real research and stop restating the obvious.

  4. My sentiments exactly, Jonathan Smith.

  5. My experience is that of a combination for a lock.

    Based on past musical experiences I hear sections of things that I identify as likable and the desire to hear it expands from there.

    I love Soundcloud House Tracks because I let it play in the background only half listening to what’s on while I work. I refer to it as “wandering the stacks.” When something plays that I like it pushes to the forefront of my consciousness and I stop what I’m doing and look at the song. If after listening to it with more focus I really like it I’ll save the song to my library. After which it isn’t uncommon for me to put the song on repeat and listen to it dozen’s of times in a row. This generally lasts for a few days before I move on to something else.

    I also have a very strong association with hardcore and death metal bands and lifting weights. It’s possible the association is psychosomatic but I feel that certain passages in certain songs literally make me physically stronger. I rarely listen to this genre of music outside of the gym. But when I’m lifting weights there are passages, usually a solo where a switch trips in my mind and I get a momentary rush, similar to perhaps the trance state of a Berserker.

    I’ll say again that it’s entirely possible that it’s something I just made up but at least for me the effect is very real. If I’m trying for a heavy lift of a weight I’ve never done, or that I’m nervous about I won’t attempt it without the music. And more often than not when the moment comes to explode and push the weight the solo drops and I have a sense that my arms are electrified, the bar goes up, and comes down.

    I also have a very strong response to the relaxing effects of certain types of music where a simple sequence of tones are played over and over, these types of videos are common on Youtube.

    And finally I prefer to always have music playing in the background of whatever I’m doing, instrumental jazz is a common favorite, as are the Chillhop compilations. If I sit down to dinner without background music on I’ll feel like something is wrong and get up and go put it on.

    I know people experience enjoyment from music, these studies talk about the dopamine response the brain receives, but for me it’s more like a scaffolding underpinning my life.

    Yes there is pleasure, but I’d compare it as being more aligned with something like food, or water. Less that I enjoy it and more that it’s something I need it to live.

  6. I think discovering the “why” for the pleasurable effects of music, bird song or any sounds we like will be much more difficult.

    A possible start could be brain imaging of the woman who perceives music as random noise. She has no hearing disorder so it must be something different in the wiring of her brain. Music of types are perceived as unpleasant noise. I wish I could remember her name but in a fairly quick Google search, I couldn’t find anything.

  7. Found what the disorder is called – amusia. They could perhaps start there …though I would think it’s likely there’s ongoing research being done already.

  8. Why no obvious biological benefits? I mean communication…societal interactions..cooperation..hell mating…we love music and dance not unlike countless other mammals amd insect. I think we just don’t hear their music. Birds love our music…and we love theirs. Loads of biological benefits I feel like.

  9. Thomas Martin | April 2, 2021 at 4:28 pm | Reply

    Why not try it for yourself. Listening to music is just what that is you hear it . But if you know how to place in in the brain by using your mind it’s totally different. Easy if you don’t know how to scan your head just point to a spot on your head and place it there . You tend to run along with the song. And how you use to hear words that you had to guess what they may have just said will also change and so will the whole song.

  10. You have told us HOW the brain enjoys music, not why.People like listening to music more than silence is hardly groundbreaking research in my opinion. I believe music is intrinsic to the universe, like Mathematics, so humans are hardwired to enjoy it.

  11. Pop? Gross. Wonder what the scans would’ve looked like with better music?

  12. Lasse Kuhlmann | April 3, 2021 at 8:08 am | Reply

    “Despite no obvious biological benefits, humans love music”. This statement is a clear sign that the author of this article obviously have too little insight to be writing such an article.

    Music is composed of a vast spectre of naturally occurring sounds and sound phenomena, that have had obvious biological benefits.

    Take the simple example of a tone rising in pitch, used extensively in electronic music. It creates a huge emotional response of positive expectations and positive feelings. Why? For thousands of years humans have filled hollow objects with water. Everytime creating the signature rising pitch, and everytime creating positive emotion.

    All of these small sound phenomenons that have had biological significance, combined results in the complex thing we call “music”.

  13. Lasse Kuhlmann | April 3, 2021 at 8:42 am | Reply

    Music is compiled of sound phenomenons that have had huge biological benefits and applications throughout evolution. Take the melidic aspect of music for instance. Or how we react to a simple tone rising in pitch, as heard much in electronic music. The same rising in pitch humans have heard ever since we started filling hollow objects with water, everytime producing positive emotion. Biology and music are tightly linked at the root level.

  14. RaychealRoamann | April 3, 2021 at 9:27 am | Reply

    An interesting biological effect of music is its vibration frequencies in relation to involuntary muscles. Restaurants can benefit from fast beat yet relaxing. The GI tract somehow digest faster when we listen to faster beats. And it digests slower with slower beats. Music is very powerful as it’s vibration with mathematical formulation. It can provoke anger and suggest lust. Or, how of you look at hymnals or Hallelujah Chorus, the sounds suggest awe, reverence gratefulness. This has something to do with the distance of notes with each other or interval. So for church music only certain compositions used to be accepted. Now, suggestive lust music, like singing to a girlfriend or boyfriend is sung at a worship service, which to me is just weird. Bach would have never approved. Its either, have a love song but do not weaken the lyrics into hollow, shallow generic lustful junk at church, oh man Jesus would have flipped the tables there like He did. Its plainly irreverently done. OR write the appropriate church interval formula with sappy, sweet adoration for God. That is great contrast. Which I know it when a smart, balanced church songwriter-singer would fashion. When I hear even the lustful words (that is supposedly applies to God but interchangeable for a human lover) paired with lustful vibe at church or Pandora: I skip it!!! My brain rejects it and do not perceive it as a reward. No endorphins on that…but just like most, music is a must for me at least.

    Music is the greatest subliminal influencer. So let’s be careful what you absorb. EDM in the morning. Or we call it “Moving Music”.

    There is a guy on a show, who would ask what was the latest songs any individual’s been listening to. He, then, would tell that person what’s been going on in their life with details…He strikes me to be a mentalist or could he be just harping on “you are what you listen to” kind of ordeal? Well, this could also be the case of “self-fulfilling prophesy”. So lets be very becareful what we let in our little ears. My nephew has Aspergers and he is great with guitars. He loves heavy metal. So I love that he loves music. However, I had to warn him lovingly (after over and over listening first to many of his practiced metal songs…”you have to gain grounds before you throw dirt”…) So, about the heavy metal vibe, I love it too! But the message that normally comes with it is, blood, bones and death! So if one listens to a line, words, lyrics that is destructive to self or others…there is a probability of it to HARMonize (no pun intended) with his brain waves…and the power of the subconscious cannot be underestimated. It’s called auto suggestion, I explained to him. It carries what we tell ourselves to action. It is neutral. So if its really negative. Dont repeat or dwell. It’s literally a bad vibe that can pair like bluetooth with your brain waves. It can shape one’s thoughts, one’s destiny. Music/Words + neuroplasticity= Your choices, your result. You’ve got that power. Because you are a child of the most powerful Creator. In the beginning was the WORD. (Word has weight, the first form of music aside from nature is chanting) GEnerate your genesis! You are not just an organical being but also an electrical being). Sounds magical? You’re sophisticatedly designed, but from ashes to ashes. You’ve got charge…and you’re in charge. Hope this added value to someone.❤

  15. Music good hurrrrrrr

  16. … well, because it is a music..

  17. This study seems to be very limited, as they only measured responses to pop music, which is designed to feed these reward circuits in the brain. Also, they only used pop music fans in the study, whose brains would be much different from the average person. I don’t think the writer of this article should be making broad statements about what this tells us about music’s effect on the human brain.

  18. Pablo Sagalá | April 5, 2021 at 5:16 pm | Reply

    Wrong research. Pop isn’t music 🙂

  19. Pablo’s Biggest Fan | May 12, 2022 at 8:35 pm | Reply

    I agree with Pablo Sagalá

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