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Lure of music

A study reveals why listening to music creates a response seen in other acts necessary for survival, such as eating and sex.

music Updated: Mar 05, 2011 23:27 IST

I’m slightly embarrassed to admit it, but I distinctly remember getting the chills the first time I heard that kicky anthem of 1980s bubblegum pop, Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go, by Wham. I then begged my mother to buy me the record, which I must have played about a million times before moving on to the likes of Michael Jackson and Madonna, followed by the Grateful Dead and Phish, then U2 and the Dave Matthews Band and, most lately, the Avett Brothers and Mumford and Sons.

With my ever-evolving taste in tunes, there’s been one constant: Music has always had the power to make me blissfully happy. So it didn’t necessarily come as a surprise when I read that researchers have now proved that listening to your favourite melodies and harmonies can trigger the brain to release large amounts of dopamine, a chemical that sends “feel good” signals to the rest of the body and plays a role in both motivation and addiction. The small study, published last month in Nature Neuroscience, used brain scans to show that college students released significantly more dopamine when they heard their preferred music (which ranged from Beethoven to Led Zeppelin to the Israeli trance band Infected Mushroom) as opposed to someone else’s tunes.

“It’s interesting, because music is an abstract sequence of tones — you’re not really getting anything for it — but somehow the way the brain is interpreting these tones, you get this intense physiological response, and the most potent reinforcing chemical in the brain is released, creating a wanting, a desire, a craving, and saying, ‘Do this again,’ ” says the study’s lead author, Valorie Salimpoor, a neuroscientist at the Montreal Neurological Institute in Canada.

She points out that not only was dopamine released at the moment of peak emotional response but the mere anticipation was also enough to cause an increase in dopamine. This biological buzz may help explain why music has played a key role in almost every culture and why we continue to spend so much money on iPods, better speakers, concert tickets and the like.

“The study provides some explanation for… why we keep doing it, even though it’s not critical to one’s life functions,” agrees neurologist Ted Rothstein of George Washington University’s medical school. He points out that the dopamine system more typically kicks in with behaviours that are necessary for survival, such as sex and eating, as well as the use of addictive substances such as cocaine and nicotine. “In human beings, there’s no obvious physiological benefit from listening to music...”

Indeed, this study fits into the growing body of research on music therapy, which suggests that listening to your favourite aria or pop hit can help you sleep better, lessen the pain associated with surgery or conditions including arthritis and fibromyalgia, decrease stress and improve anxiety and depression, among other health benefits.

Salimpoor stresses that her team’s results go a long way toward explaining why other recent studies have shown that music and dance therapy can be incredibly effective for patients with Parkinson’s disease, which is characterised by low dopamine levels. But while music may have the power to make us happier and perhaps even healthier in some ways, it isn’t likely to make us smarter. Developmental psychologist Penny Glass, director of the Child Development Program at Children’s National Medical Centre, stresses that the “Mozart effect” - a theory that classical music helps boost intelligence, particularly in babies and small children - remains controversial. I’m willing to bet that the natural high of a hearing a really good, cheesy song on the radio is reward enough for most of us.