New York Blog

Music to Your Ears…

Music has a way of altering your mood. When you are down, listening to music can really brighten your day. But have you ever stop to think how that happens? Specifically, what happens neurologically that triggers an emotional response to music?

I recently attended an event at the New York Academy of Sciences that addressed this question. This event, which is the last part of the Science of the Five Senses series, featured Dr. Daniel Levitin, professor of psychology at McGill University and director of the laboratory of musical perception, cognition and expertise and Rosanne Cash, grammy-winning singer and songwriter (and daughter of Johnny Cash).

In order to determine how music elicits an emotional response, Levitin’s group performed a rather straightforward experiment. Subjects were exposed to 23-second bits of classical music (in tact for experimental subjects and scrambled for control subjects) while being scanned in an fMRI. They found that listening to music activated areas of the brain that are considered to be the pleasure center, specifically the nucleus accumbens and the ventral tegmental area, which are involved in reward processing. Music also modulated the hypothalamus and insula, which are involved in regulating physiological responses to both rewarding and emotional stimuli. So it seems there is a neurological basis for the mood-altering effects of music.

Levitin mentioned that the regions of the brain that are stimulated by listening to music (i.e. the pleasure center) are also activated in response to other pleasurable stimuli, such as an orgasm. The pleasure center is also stimulated when an addict gets a fix. As Rosanne Cash aptly put it, “maybe there is something to sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll.” So the next time you put on your favorite tune to lighten the mood, be sure to remember why it’s so enjoyable. It’s not so surprising you can become addicted to music.


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    Lee Turnpenny said:

    Interesting. It’s interesting, also, how we can kid ourselves we like certain music when we don’t, or vice-versa. How does the pleasure center react to that? Can we ignore/override its activation? Or can it be trained to react? Music is cultural, so are we conditioned to respond to the type that is dominant in our culture; or is there someting common to all music that elicits a universal response?

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    Eric Michael Johnson said:

    Do the nucleus accumbens and the ventral tegmental area show any plasticity over time related to music? I imagine that’s a difficult thing to test, but I know how some people’s musical tastes change over time. I wonder if people need new and different stimulus in order to achieve the same buzz of pleasure. This could explain, in part, the seeming arms race between musicians and their audience. The need to increase the complexity and emotional power of the music. (Could also explain why the mainstream music industry targets the under-thirty market, who don’t seem to notice the mind-numbing inanity of such albums as Britney Spears’ Circus.)

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    Kristi Vogel said:

    The nucleus accumbens and the ventral tegmentum are also components of the limbic loop through the basal nuclei, involved in the initial motivation for movement. So with music you don’t like, you’d be motivated to cover your ears or walk away or turn off the radio/iPod. With music you like, you’d be motivated to tap your foot or drum on the steering wheel or dance.

    Fear of music (also the title of a Talking Heads album) would instead involve the amygdala.

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    Caryn Shechtman said:

    Lee- I believe all music elicits a response, though I would think the effects it has on your mood are based on if the music is a cultural norm or not. In a recent review article by Levitin he states, “Consistent with findings on state-dependent memory, mood affects memory for music played in different modalities. It has been reported that when induced with a positive mood, Western listeners are more likely to recognize a melody played in a major key than a minor key, indicating that strong associations are made to music that is congruent with (culturally defined) transient mood states.”

    On that note, it was thought that man was the only species that could actually keep a beat but Snowball, the dancing cockatoo, has proven us wrong. Dr. Levitin said that there is group currently studying this phenomenon.

    Eric- Interesting question. Dr. Levitin discussed that he found one’s interest in music is based on their ability to predict the next sequence. So, perhaps as you grow tired of the same old sequences, you prefer more complex music. A caveat to this, I think (so did Rosanne Cash), are types of jazz in which there is no pattern to the music at all, making it almost impossible to predict the coming sequence.

    Kristi- Haha! Good point. I never thought about that. I guess it could be seen evolutionarily as a protective response to bad music:)

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    Sabbi Lall said:

    Thanks Caryn- I’m sorry I missed the event, but great summary! To follow up on the cultural point, I grew up hearing bollywood musical numbers and other dance styles at home, but learning western classical music (violin) at school. Pleasure/ emotional centers activated by both, but in a pretty different way. I always want to move and dance (even on the subway and possibly in formation!) when I hear the former, and this doesn’t happen with the latter, it’s a different kind of emotional response completely.

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    Caryn Shechtman said:

    So I guess the responses vary greatly. Thanks for putting a real life example to it Sarbjit! It helps clear it up!

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    Audra McKinzie said:

    I suspect the NA and VT do indeed exhibit plasticity in response to music as that would explain why you might hate a song when it is initially over-played on the radio, but then think you like it when you hear it again years later. Conditioned responses can be so annoying!

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