Whatever song, mix, or instrument you’re about to play next through your speakers will most likely cause your brain to release dopamine. Yes, that’s the same chemical that’s triggered when you take drugs, have sex, or eat amazing food. However, this will only occur if you play a song that you enjoy listening to. Let’s say I was wrong, and instead of choosing a tune you liked, you decided to click on something random from YouTube, from a genre you don’t normally play. How quickly will you decide whether or not you like this new sound? Also, what are the determining factors that make up your brain’s mind?
Luckily, these are the same questions a neuroscientist at Rotman Research Institute had after becoming euphoric from a piece of Brahms music. Valorie Salimpoor, the excited neuroscientist, conducted multiple studies on the brain and music at McGill University. Her most recent experiment used fMRI to track brain activity while participants in the study listened to the first 30 seconds of 60 songs they were unfamiliar with. After each song the participants listened to, they were offered the chance to purchase it with their own money, via a system much like iTunes. However, instead of a simple click-to-buy button, it was formatted like an auction—they could place bids ranging from $0 to $2.
In order to create a solid sample of participants with similar preferences on music, Salimpoor narrowed it down to 19 people—they all indicated the same tastes in electronic and indie music. After this, she had to carefully pick music that was similar in taste to the participants’ favorites, but that was also much less well known and had not shown up on any volunteers’ survey.
The results showed that the connections between the brain’s ‘pleasure center’ and its surrounding regions—like the amygdala, which processes emotion, and the hippocampus, which is important for memory—predicted how much a participant would spend on each song. In other words, if one of the volunteers spent $2 on a given song, then a lot of dopamine neurons were flowing in those first 30 seconds, and thus the connections between the pleasure center and other parts of the brain were strong.
So, we know people choose to buy certain tunes over others based on how much stimulation their brain’s pleasure center is receiving. But, why were some participants skipping the same songs others were ecstatic about?
Salimpoor says that our brains create “musical memory templates” based on past musical experiences we’ve had. Depending on what styles of music your brain has recorded, it will choose to reactivate them or not when listening to a new piece of music. Basically, your brain’s pleasure center predicts how you’ll feel from a song based on similar music you’ve heard. If you’ve never heard classical music before, and your brain has no musical template for it, then odds are you will feel bored or disappointed after turning on a new classical piece. This helps to explain why a new band that fits under a genre you’re very familiar with or love is so easily enjoyed (and purchased). Your brain might just have the biggest pleasure response for that style of music because it has a lot of its particular musical template stored.
This study may also explain why individuals go through different phases with their musical preferences. Imagine the music you’re currently really enjoying. Was your brain always pushing out dopamine from that style of structured sound? Odds are, probably not. If your brain originally disliked it, and produced no positive responses, what made you start listening to this type of music in the first place? I think the answer is simple: friends. Music is like a language—it is a social tool that has produced a powerful effect on cultures all across the world. When people around you—family, friends, or coworkers—are repetitively listening to a certain style of music, you will eventually catch on, and your brain will create a musical template for that style.