Music impacts us in ways that other sounds don’t, and for years now, scientists have been wondering why. Now they are finally beginning to find some answers. Using fMRI technology, they’re discovering why music can inspire such strong feelings and bind us so tightly to other people.
How music makes the brain happy
How powerful? In one of her studies, she and her colleagues hooked up participants to an fMRI machine and recorded their brain activity as they listened to a favorite piece of music. During peak emotional moments in the songs identified by the listeners, dopamine was released in the nucleus accumbens, a structure deep within the lower part of our human brain.
There’s another part of the brain that seeps dopamine, specifically just before those peak emotional moments in a song: the caudate nucleus, which is involved in anticipation of pleasure. Presumably, the anticipatory pleasure comes from familiarity with the song you have a memory of the song you enjoyed in the past embedded in your brain, and you anticipate the high points that are coming. This pairing of anticipation and pleasure is a potent combination, one that suggests we are biologically driven to listen to music we like.
Musical rhythms can directly affect your brain rhythms, and brain rhythms are responsible for how you feel at any given moment. That’s why when people get together and hear the same music, such as in a concert hall, it tends to make their brains synch up in rhythmic ways, inducing a shared emotional experience, he says. Music works in much the same way language work using a combination of sound and dynamic variations to impart a precise understanding of the listener.