Experiencing and even anticipating thrilling music releases the neurotransmitter dopamine, a “pleasure” chemical in the brain that is linked to tangible rewards like food, drugs and sex, said scientists from Canada who measured dopamine response to music and found the more “chills” or “frisson” the music elicits, even in the anticipation phase, the more dopamine is released.

You can read about the study, by researchers from The Montreal Neurological Institute and Hospital (The Neuro) at McGill University, online in the 9 January issue of the journal Nature Neuroscience.

For the study, the researchers started with a group of 217 people and kept testing various measures of “chills” or “frisson” elicited by the same pieces of music. This group eventually yielded 8 listeners whose anatomical “arousal” responses, such as changes in skin conductance, heart rate, breathing, and temperature, were consistent at each listening, even in different environments.

The 8 listeners then went forward to the main part of the study, where over three music listening sessions, the researchers scanned their brains using a novel combination of PET (positron emission tomography) and fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) techniques.

The listeners also completed a questionnaire to rate the amount of pleasure they got from the music they listened to during the sessions.

Lead researcher Valorie Salimpoor, a graduate student at the The Neuro and McGill psychology program, told the press that:

“It is generally a great challenge to examine dopamine activity during both the anticipation and the consumption phase of a reward.”

But she explained that the PET scanner captures both phases, and when you add those results to the time-sensitive scans from the fMRI, you end up with “a unique assessment of the distinct contributions of each brain region at different time points”.

“Music is unique in the sense that we can measure all reward phases in real-time, as it progresses from baseline neutral to anticipation to peak pleasure all during scanning,” said Salimpoor.

She and her colleagues found a “functional dissociation”, with different brain circuits active in the different phases:

“… the caudate was more involved during the anticipation and the nucleus accumbens was more involved during the experience of peak emotional responses to music,” they wrote.

They also said that these two phases are linked to similar concepts in music, such as tension and resolution (as you get for instance when you go from a G7 chord back to C major).

They concluded this study shows that “intense pleasure in response to music can lead to dopamine release in the striatal system”.

And, they added, it also shows that the anticipation of an “abstract reward” (music is not considered a tangible reward like food or sex), can release dopamine in a different anatomical pathway to that which is triggered at the peak of actually experiencing the pleasurable reward.

“Our results help to explain why music is of such high value across all human societies,” noted Salimpoor and colleagues.

Co-author Dr Robert Zatorre, a neuroscientist at The Neuro, and head of the lab that Salimpoor works in, said:

“These findings provide neurochemical evidence that intense emotional responses to music involve ancient reward circuitry in the brain.”

He said that as far as they knew, this was the first study to show that an abstract reward can lead to dopamine release.

“Abstract rewards are largely cognitive in nature, and this study paves the way for future work to examine non-tangible rewards that humans consider rewarding for complex reasons,” he explained.

“Anatomically distinct dopamine release during anticipation and experience of peak emotion to music.”
Valorie N Salimpoor, Mitchel Benovoy, Kevin Larcher, Alain Dagher, and Robert J Zatorre.
Nature Neuroscience, Published online 09 January 2011.

Written by: Catharine Paddock, PhD