Why Does the Brain Enjoy Music?

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The saying “Music is the food of the soul.” is one of the most beautiful metaphors for music. As a matter of fact, scientific studies back this saying up. As per the studies, despite having no known biological benefits, music gives enjoyment to people, just like food and drinks.

While neuroimaging studies, by their nature, are able to put forward only the relational connection between the brain regions and the enjoyment that music gives, a new study published in the Journal of Neuroscience (Mas-Herrero et al., 2021) attempted to determine the causal role between the reward circuit and music through non-invasive brain stimulation (Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation – TMS).

In the research, the participants consisting of pop music band fans are divided into two groups. The reward circuits of the brain (fronto-striatal pathways) are stimulated by administering TMS into the left prefrontal cortex (DLPFC) area. One group is sent a stimulant to increase the function of the target area, and the other one a suppressing stimulant provisionally. Then, their brain activities are monitored through fMRI as the two groups are made to listen to pop music songs.

The Results of the Research

  • While the enjoyment felt by the participants while listening to the songs is increased by exciting the reward circuit prior to hearing the music, the inhibition of this circuit reduces the enjoyment taken from the song.
  • The fMRI results support the differences in enjoyment reported by the participants after the TMS, with the physiological changes in the brain.
  • The functional connections between the nucleus accumbens (NAcc), which is a key area of the reward circuit, and the frontal and auditory cortex, show substantial differences based on TMS prior to and after the experiment.
  • In other words, the participants with the highest difference in enjoyment, also show the biggest difference in terms of synchronized activities between the auditory and reward areas.

These results indicate that the aforementioned brain areas (fronto-striatal pathways and NAcc) are quite important in terms of experiencing the rewarding feelings one derives from the music. Moreover, the positive effects of TMS on these areas serve as an example of the treatment mechanism of depression, which is characterized by not taking pleasure in life.

– Unraveling the temporal dynamics of reward signals in music-induced pleasure with TMS. Ernest Mas-Herrero, Alain Dagher, Marcel Farrés-Franch and Robert J. Zatorre. Journal of Neuroscience 29 March 2021, JN-RM-0727-20; DOI: https://doi.org/10.1523/JNEUROSCI.0727-20.2020.
– Why the Brain Enjoys Music? Society for Neuroscience.