Timeline: Dopamine And Music - It Feels Good

May 6, 2019

We all know that listening to music is enjoyable, pleasurable, emotional… in short, it feels good. Why though? Why do we react to music this way?

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This is a question that scientists have pondered for decades. When we think about the simple pleasures of life; food, family, friendship, intimacy, all of these things point to survival aspects of our species. It makes sense that we would enjoy them and seek them out. But with music it’s curious that something which seems to have no survival benefit, the creation of organized sound, should be so universal and integral to the human experience.

A recent study and article in the “Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences” could bring us closer to an understanding of human musicality. A dozen researchers from around the world were involved in this double-blind study which has finally linked musical enjoyment with the release of dopamine in the brain. Before we can discuss the significance of these findings, we should review what dopamine is and what it does.

Dopamine is one of hundreds of chemicals that travel between the neurons in our brains. It has been called, "the feel good" chemical.
Credit U.S. Public Domain

Your brain is made up of 100 billion neurons which branch out in connections called synapses. They speak to each other using chemicals called neural transmitters. There are hundreds of these chemicals that travel from one neuron to another and dopamine is one of them. In popular culture, dopamine is known as “the feel good” chemical. However, in modern biology dopamine is seen more as a motivational tool, drawing you either towards or away from something. Many evolutionary scientists believe that the prevalence of this chemical in the human brain has been integral in our development as a species. Dopamine plays an important role in arousal, motivation, reinforcement and reward. Many addictive narcotics operate by either releasing dopamine into the system or by shutting down dopamine receptors. Problems of having too much or too little dopamine in the brain have pointed to conditions such as ADHD, Alzheimer’s, depression, bipolar disorders, addiction and schizophrenia.

Now, let’s get back to the recent study. Individuals were given drugs that either increased their ability to accept dopamine or suppressed it. They were then observed listening to their favorite music and you can probably intuit the results from there. Those given the dopamine helper were moved even more by the music and their brains lit up with the response, while those given the inhibitor didn’t. So, what’s the big deal? This study helps to show that the brain responds to abstract stimulus, like music, much like it does to concrete stimuli, like food, sex and narcotics.

We've been operating under the assumption that music has no survival or evolutionary benefit. Yet, our biology is telling a different story.

We might not understand all the ways that musical expression has shaped us, but evidence is mounting that we are musical creatures, seeking organized sound much in the same way we seek out other physical pleasures and experiences. Our brains are wired for music that’s why it feels good to listen, sing, play and participate.

What do you think? What does the enjoyment of music mean to you? Comment below and let us know, we'd love to hear from you.

Timeline is an exploration into the development of Western music.