Music and Our Brain


The ultimate awkward introduction: random roommates. You've randomly been paired with a total stranger and now you're trying to get to know them via Facebook or text. Not that it really makes any difference of course - no matter what their personality, this is the person you're living with for the next year, squashed into a tiny box in East Halls. Some people luck out (like me) and are fortunate enough to get a roommate that's super nice and generally easy to live with. But then there are the horror stories. Some people have the unfortunate luck of spending their freshman year of college trapped in what feels like an infinitely more terrifying remake of The Roommate. But I digress...these awkward introductions often start with general facts about oneself, including the ever-popular, "What kind of music do you like?"  Thanks to the blog of a fellow classmate, I learned that someone's taste in music may be partially influenced by their brain. So I decided to investigate the question "What other effects does music have on the brain?" As a Public Relations major whose dream is to work in the music industry, I found the results quite interesting.

            So why IS music such an enjoyable experience for humans? According to an article by the New York Times, music has the ability to reach into the "reward system" in our brain. This is the same part of the brain that releases dopamine, a chemical that is sent out in response to sex, food, and certain types of drugs. In other words, when music is particularly enjoyable, dopamine is released and it simply makes you feel really good. However, questions still remain.  What exactly is it about those certain musical moments that trigger the release of dopamine? I would hypothesize that it has to do with our musical tastes and often comes at a moment of high intensity or emotion in a song. Examining the points at which the brain showed an increase in dopamine could easily test this hypothesis.  It also makes me curious to know how much dopamine is released while listening to music as compared to during sex, while eating, or while doing cocaine; this could also be very easily tested.

             Time Magazine also posted a similar article, yet they read more into what causes a "craving" for music. The same part of the brain that releases dopamine is also in control of addictions. Consequently, this makes music much more desirable. Their research also showed that brains have a certain way of "predicting" the melody and musicality of how a song will progress based on their prior musical memory and the preceding tonality within the song. One thing that seemed curious to me was that animals do not have higher levels of dopamine while listening to music, yet they do while eating or having sex. This poses the question: What is different about that area of an animal's brain that causes them to have no neurological reaction to music?

 Last but not least, CNN attempted to answer the question, "Why do we like what we like?" They found that this can be affected in more than one way, yet the most scientific was through different neurological pathways and brain structures. I would hypothesize that they can have an impact on how a brain processes different stimuli and therefore act as the cause of different musical tastes. Their studies also showed that people would pay more for a song that caused stronger positive reactions in their brain, which is highly unsurprising since those songs were obviously more pleasurable to the listener/consumer.


So, the next time you're faced with an awkward introduction and the topic of music comes up, you can simply spiel off these facts instead. This, however, runs the risk of coming across as a total nerd (of course, if this person is worth truly getting to know they will probably find this rather interesting).


Hey I my self absolutely love music and I have also always been interested in how music affects us biologically and psychologically. The study I linked at the bottom is about how music is utilized in ways to influence our emotions through advertising. Essentially music also has the ability to sway our thoughts, whether we feel sad or happy, etc. Think of those abandoned animal commercials or the ones about donating money to a poor child.

Kevin, I also find it very interesting to think about how movies and commercials try to use music to make us feel a certain emotion or even call us back to another point in time. For example, I just finished watching the movie Pretty Woman. There's a crucial part where Richard Gere and Julia Roberts are sitting watching an opera and it is implied that in that moment they realize they have feelings for each other. At the very end of the movie, as the "happy ending" is coming to fruition, the same opera once again begins playing in the background. It is things like this that I love about movies and how they use the score and soundtrack to drastically improve the quality and increase the emotion of the script. This is much the same way that scary movies use "scary" music, to make the scene just that much more suspenseful and terrifying. The precision and time that must go into making these scores baffles me. I often wonder myself if there is any science behind why composers will put what type of musical progression at which points in a movie to see if there is a certain reaction caused by that progression.

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