New study shows what happens in the brain to make music rewarding

April 11, 2013, McGill University
Listening to music is an "intellectual" reward, which results from interactions between subcortical dopaminergic regions involved in forming predictions that we share with other animals, and cortically stored templates of previously heard music that are unique to each individual, along with some of the most evolved parts of the cerebral cortex involved in complex pattern recognition and sequencing. These regions ultimately work together to assign reward value to an abstract stimulus. Credit: Peter Finnie and Ben Beheshti

A new study reveals what happens in our brain when we decide to purchase a piece of music when we hear it for the first time. The study, conducted at the Montreal Neurological Institute and Hospital – The Neuro, McGill University and published in the journal Science on April 12, pinpoints the specific brain activity that makes new music rewarding and predicts the decision to purchase music.

Participants in the study listened to 60 previously unheard music excerpts while undergoing functional resonance imaging (fMRI) scanning, providing bids of how much they were willing to spend for each item in an auction paradigm. "When people listen to a they have never heard before, activity in one brain region can reliably and consistently predict whether they will like or buy it, this is the which is involved in forming expectations that may be rewarding," says lead investigator Dr. Valorie Salimpoor, who conducted the research in Dr. Robert Zatorre's lab at The Neuro and is now at Baycrest Health Sciences' Rotman Research Institute. "What makes music so emotionally powerful is the creation of expectations. Activity in the nucleus accumbens is an indicator that expectations were met or surpassed, and in our study we found that the more activity we see in this brain area while people are listening to music, the more money they are willing to spend."

You can listen to the music excerpts used in the study: http://www.zlab.mcgill.ca/science2013/

The second important finding is that the nucleus accumbens doesn't work alone, but interacts with the auditory cortex, an area of the brain that stores information about the sounds and music we have been exposed to. The more a given piece was rewarding, the greater the cross-talk between these regions. Similar interactions were also seen between the nucleus accumbens and other , involved in high-level sequencing, complex pattern recognition and areas involved in assigning emotional and reward value to stimuli.

In other words, the brain assigns value to music through the interaction of ancient dopaminergic reward circuitry, involved in reinforcing behaviours that are absolutely necessary for our survival such as eating and sex, with some of the most evolved regions of the brain, involved in advanced cognitive processes that are unique to humans.

"This is interesting because music consists of a series of sounds that when considered alone have no inherent value, but when arranged together through patterns over time can act as a reward, says Dr. Robert Zatorre, researcher at The Neuro and co-director of the International Laboratory for Brain, Music and Sound Research. "The integrated activity of circuits involved in pattern recognition, prediction, and emotion allow us to experience music as an aesthetic or intellectual reward."

"The in each participant was the same when they were listening to music that they ended up purchasing, although the pieces they chose to buy were all different," adds Dr. Salimpoor. "These results help us to see why people like different music – each person has their own uniquely shaped auditory cortex, which is formed based on all the sounds and music heard throughout our lives. Also, the sound templates we store are likely to have previous emotional associations."

An innovative aspect of this study is how closely it mimics real-life music-listening experiences. Researchers used a similar interface and prices as iTunes. To replicate a real life scenario as much as possible and to assess reward value objectively, individuals could purchase music with their own money, as an indication that they wanted to hear it again. Since musical preferences are influenced by past associations, only novel music excerpts were selected (to minimize explicit predictions) using music recommendation software (such as Pandora, Last.fm) to reflect individual preferences.

The interactions between nucleus accumbens and the auditory cortex suggest that we create expectations of how musical sounds should unfold based on what is learned and stored in our , and our emotions result from the violation or fulfillment of these expectations. We are constantly making reward-related predictions to survive, and this study provides neurobiological evidence that we also make predictions when listening to an abstract stimulus, music, even if we have never heard the before. and prediction of an otherwise simple set of stimuli, when arranged together become so powerful as to make us happy or bring us to tears, as well as communicate and experience some of the most intense, complex emotions and thoughts.

Explore further: Remixed brain waves reveal soundtrack of the human brain

More information: "Interactions Between the Nucleus Accumbens and Auditory Cortices Predict Music Reward Value," by V.N. Salimpoor, Science, 2013.

Related Stories

Remixed brain waves reveal soundtrack of the human brain

November 14, 2012
Scientists have combined and translated two kinds of brain wave recordings into music, transforming one recording (EEG) to create the pitch and duration of a note, and the other (fMRI) to control the intensity of the music. ...

Beauty is in the medial orbito-frontal cortex of the beholder, study finds

July 6, 2011
(Medical Xpress) -- A region at the front of the brain 'lights up' when we experience beauty in a piece of art or a musical excerpt, according to new research funded by the Wellcome Trust. The study, published today in the ...

New study shows different brains have similar responses to music

April 10, 2013
Do the brains of different people listening to the same piece of music actually respond in the same way? An imaging study by Stanford University School of Medicine scientists says the answer is yes, which may in part explain ...

Recommended for you

Research reveals atomic-level changes in ALS-linked protein

January 18, 2018
For the first time, researchers have described atom-by-atom changes in a family of proteins linked to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), a group of brain disorders known as frontotemporal dementia and degenerative diseases ...

Fragile X finding shows normal neurons that interact poorly

January 18, 2018
Neurons in mice afflicted with the genetic defect that causes Fragile X syndrome (FXS) appear similar to those in healthy mice, but these neurons fail to interact normally, resulting in the long-known cognitive impairments, ...

How your brain remembers what you had for dinner last night

January 17, 2018
Confirming earlier computational models, researchers at University of California San Diego and UC San Diego School of Medicine, with colleagues in Arizona and Louisiana, report that episodic memories are encoded in the hippocampus ...

Recording a thought's fleeting trip through the brain

January 17, 2018
University of California, Berkeley neuroscientists have tracked the progress of a thought through the brain, showing clearly how the prefrontal cortex at the front of the brain coordinates activity to help us act in response ...

Midbrain 'start neurons' control whether we walk or run

January 17, 2018
Locomotion comprises the most fundamental movements we perform. It is a complex sequence from initiating the first step, to stopping when we reach our goal. At the same time, locomotion is executed at different speeds to ...

Miles Davis is not Mozart: The brains of jazz and classical pianists work differently

January 16, 2018
Keith Jarret, world-famous jazz pianist, once answered in an interview when asked if he would ever be interested in doing a concert where he would play both jazz and classical music: "No, that's hilarious. [...] It's like ...

2 comments

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

PJS
not rated yet Apr 11, 2013
wonder if she's listening to ICP
janiux
not rated yet May 30, 2013
now i got it clear

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.