Innovative research examines how musical pleasure leads to physiological stimuli.

We all know that music can alter our mood or emotion, but scientists are researching exactly how it affects us on a physiological level. The new study found that the enjoyment we get from listening to music releases dopamine, which in turn causes changes to heart rate, breathing and body temperature.

The study was conducted by the Montreal Neurological Institute and Hospital and published in the prestigious journal, Nature Neuroscience. It suggests that while music is an abstract form and has no tangible ‘value’, its value goes beyond simple listening-pleasure.

“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,” said lead researcher Valorie Salimpoor. “It is generally a great challenge to examine dopamine activity during both the anticipation and the consumption phase of a reward. Both phases are captured together online by the Positron Emission Tomography (PET) scanner, which provides us with a unique assessment of the contributions of each brain region at different time points.”

Dopamine is a chemical found in the human brain which is responsible for biological behaviour. Its release was found to be far greater during more pleasurable music, a direct link to the emotional arousal and enjoyment of the listener. As a result, the listener experienced ‘chills’ or ‘musical frissons’ – similar to the response elicited by eating food, consuming drugs, or having sex.

As well as the release of dopamine, the innovative study revealed that two different brain circuits participate in anticipation and then the actual experience. The same two areas are related to concepts in music like ‘tension and resolution’. According to Dr Robert Zatorre, a neuroscientist involved with the study, it is the first demonstration of an abstract reward contributing to dopamine release.

“These findings provide neurochemical evidence that intense emotional responses to music involve ancient reward circuitry in the brain,” he said. “This study paves the way for future work to examine non-tangible rewards that humans consider rewarding for complex reasons.”

While more studies are yet to begin, we have already been handed a guilt-free reason to keep listening to our favourite symphony or sonata.