Your brain on music

by Rob Tiller

Why do we love music? The question has always bothered me. There’s no doubt that music is a powerful force, but how does it work? It seems like a fundamental human activity, practiced in every society now and as far back as we have knowledge. As a thoroughgoing Darwinist, I assume musical activity must confer some evolutionary advantage, like being able to throw a spear well or make a fire. But it’s by no means obvious what music contributes to survival, or even what it does to make us happier.

For a philosophically inclined musician, that’s troubling. The question has a moral aspect. We can use our limited energy in various ways, with various positive or negative outputs. We can, for example, help feed the poor, ignore the poor, or rob the poor, and the choice partially defines us. If we’re making music, and not feeding the poor or doing some equally valuable thing, how can we justify it?

Last week I learned of a study that gave a new perspective on these questions. Neurologists at McGill University did brain imaging using PET and fMRI techniques that established that the music can cause the neurotransmitter dopamine to be released in the brian. Dopamine is part of the deep reward system involving the limbic system. It makes it pleasurable for individuals to do things that are good for the species, like eating and having sex. In other words, dopamine is connected to key behaviors, and drives those behaviors.

So in some sense, music is as significant as eating and sex. We can do without any of those things, at least for a while, but they are fundamental to human animals as a whole. This doesn’t answer the basic why questions of music, but it suggests the possibility of an answer. At any rate, it shows that music can be something powerful.

The McGill researchers found that dopamine release levels vary with different kinds of music, and related those variations to the what they called “chills,” and I call goosebumps. So not all music is created equal. I’ve developed as my own test for when music is most effective the monitor of when it makes a lot of goosebumps. Thanks to the neurologists for a new way of thinking about this amazing thing.