People have always loved and cherished music, investing time into both composing and listening to it. Journalists from The New York Times sought to find the reason behind our deep attachment to this intangible thing that, for most of us, yields no material gain.

A relatively simple and quick answer to the question of why music appeals to us is that music generates pleasure, and induces a state of well-being. Scientists have tried to delve into the subtleties of the phenomenon to understand the correlations between music and the human brain.

The effects on the brain

More than a decade ago, a team of researchers, coordinated by two neuroscience experts, Robert J. Zatorre and Valorie N. Salimpoor, proved that music has the capacity to stir up strong emotions and activate the motivation and reward centres in our brains. Furthermore, their research has shown that when we listen to what we might call a “peak emotional moment” (that moment when we feel a thrill caused by pleasure while listening to a certain musical sequence), dopamine, an important signalling chemical, is released.

Therefore when we listen to pleasant music, dopamine is released in an area of the brain which responds to natural reward stimuli, such as food or sex.

To find out more information about the way in which music triggers the brain’s reward system, scientists have initiated a study in which they simulated the purchasing of music online. Their purpose was to determine what happens in the brain when someone listens to a new song and decides they like it enough to buy it. The results showed that the reward-associated activity is directly proportional to the amount of money people are willing to pay.

“When people listen to a piece of music they have never heard before, their brain activity cannot indicate whether they like it or whether they will buy it. It is this creation of expectations that makes music so emotionally powerful,” says Salimpoor, neuroscience professor at the Research Institute in Toronto, according to The Telegraph. “It is very interesting because music is made up of a series of sounds that, taken separately, have no value, but arranged together according to certain patterns can act as rewards”, says Robert Zatorre, neurology professor at the Montreal Neurological Institute.

The sound of music – a real drug?

The sound of music can be regarded as a drug, capable of activating the brain as a chemical stimulant and offering pleasure, arousal, or satisfaction sensations similar to those generated by sex or drugs, says neurologist Daniel J. Levitin, former rock musician and record producer, and now professor at McGill University in Montreal. During the tests he conducted it was discovered that “music produces a chemical reaction, thanks to which the neural circuits involved help modulate the levels of dopamine, the so-called hormone of well-being, in the brain”, Levitin said. This is exactly what happens in the case of sexual activity or the consumption of certain drugs.

When we listen to cheerful, sentimental, exalting or relaxing songs, the autonomic nervous system which affects blood pressure, heart rate, breathing, perspiration and other physical reactions, undergoes changes. This is the conclusion that Levitin mentions in his book This Is Your Brain On Music. He pointed out that safety plays an important role when choosing music. To a certain extent, we surrender to the music we listen to—we open part of our hearts and spirits to the composers and musicians; we let music carry us someplace outside of us. Many of us feel that big concerts connect us to something greater than our own experience, with other people or God, the author says.

Nonetheless, not all effects that music has on the brain are positive. Some types of music can disrupt the symmetry between the two cerebral hemispheres, cause learning disabilities and disruptive behaviour in children, aggravate mood disorders in teens, and decrease work capacity for adults.