Why Your Brain Loves Music

New neuroscience study sets out to explain why in some respects music offers the same sort of pleasure as a really good thriller.

Neuroscientist Valorie Salimpoor heard Johannes Brahms’s “Hungarian Dance No. 5” while driving. The music moved her so profoundly that she had to pull over. It prompted her to study how music affects the brain. Photo: Alamy

By Ivan Hewett, Music Critic

11:33AM BST 12 Apr 2013

The love affair between music and neuroscience just keeps going and going. And this isn’t surprising because music’s power over us is so huge, and so odd. It’s not like those other great providers of pleasure, food and sex. It doesn’t help to propagate our genes. Nor does it tell us anything about the world. Curiosity is a useful survival tool, but only when applied to the world at large. And yet music seems to satisfy our craving for mental stimulation. We follow its patterns, keen to see where they might lead.

The latest research, reported on the Today programme, comes from a team at the Rotman Research Institute in Canada. It was led by Valorie Salimpoor, who was once so overwhelmed by hearing a Brahms Hungarian Dance in the car she had to pull off the road. Ever since she’s being trying to figure out why. This latest project helps to explain why in some respects music offers the same sort of pleasure as a really good thriller. A group of listeners was asked to listen to short samples of 60 songs they’d never heard before, within a style they were familiar with. The 19 volunteers (10 men and nine women aged 18 to 37) then bid for each track, up to a maximum of two dollars.

To make it more realistic, participants actually paid their own money, and were given a CD of their chosen tracks at the end of the study.

While they listened, the participants brains were scanned using MRI. Many different brain regions were stimulated in the participants’ brains, when they liked a particular song. But only when they were willing to pay was there a strong correlation with one brain region in particular, called the nucleus accumbens.

This is the area responsible for the sensation of “pleasant surprise”. “We’re constantly making predictions, even if we don’t know the music,” said the team leader Valorie Salimpoor in an interview in Sciencemag. “We’re still predicting how it should unfold.”

It might seem surprising that people should enjoy having their expectations contradicted. But these results only reveal the physical basis for something we’ve known about for centuries. In the ancient world, teachers of rhetoric knew that one way to hold people’s attention was to set up expectations and then deny them.

As the great 17th-century philosopher Francis Bacon put it in an essay on rhetoric, “there is pleasure even in being deceived”.

But the implication is this only works provided the ‘deceiving’ doesn’t go on too long. Thwarting expectations is good, as long as it’s temporary. Anyone who’s studied music theory will have come across the “interrupted cadence”, which does actually what its name suggests. It seems to be leading to a close, but at the last minute swerves to an unexpected destination. We enjoy this, partly because it’s a pleasurable shock, but also because we know it will all come out right in the end.

More closely relevant to this new research is a book published more than 50 years ago by the music theorist Leonard Meyer. Entitled Emotion and Meaning in Music, it offers an entire theory of musical meaning based on a close examination of things like the interrupted cadence. Meyer showed how this mechanism of “thwarted expectation” only works when we know the style. Faced with a piece of Korean pansori music, most of us can’t predict how it will unfold, so our pleasure in the music is drastically reduced.

Meyer had a subtle mind, but was writing in a different age, when intellectual fashions were different. I wonder how many of these neuroscientists have even heard of him? What bothers me about these research projects is the disparity between their musical and scientific aspects. The technology of brain-scanning and the clever experimental set-ups are so awe-inspiring we tend not to notice that musically speaking, these projects are pretty crude.

What we need is a proper dialogue between musicians and scientists; then we might learn something really profound.