I still remember when I first heard the song by Peter Gabriel, "Solsbury Hill." Something about that song - the lyrics, the melody, the unusual 7/4 time signature - gave me chills. Even now, years later, it still can make me cry.
Who among us doesn't have a similar story about a song that touched us? Whether attending a concert, listening to the radio, or singing in the shower, there's something about music that can fill us with emotion, from joy to sadness.
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.
"Music affects deep emotional centers in the brain, " says Valorie Salimpoor, a neuroscientist at McGill University who studies the brain on music. "A single sound tone is not really pleasurable in itself; but if these sounds are organized over time in some sort of arrangement, it's amazingly powerful."
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 older part of our human brain
"That's a big deal, because dopamine is released with biological rewards, like eating and sex, for example," says Salimpoor. "It's also released with drugs that are very powerful and addictive, like cocaine or amphetamines."
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 the 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