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Love that Symphony? Your Brain Does Too

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Can’t get enough of a Chopin nocturne or that stirring Brahms concerto? New research suggests the music you love doesn’t just sound good, it can actually provoke natural chemical reactions in the brain associated with pleasure and positive feeling.

A recent study carried out by a team of scientists led by Valorie Salimpoor of McGill University in Montreal, Canada, and published in Nature Neuroscience, shows a direct correlation between listening to favorite music and increased dopamine in the brain, comparable to levels people experience when consuming favorite foods or, in more extreme cases, cocaine.

“The part of the brain that we found that releases dopamine is tightly connected to the frontal cortex,” said Salimpoor. “This is significant because this is the part that is more developed in humans, that separates us from other animals and that houses complex thinking.”

It’s probably no surprise to learn that music can provoke such strongly positive reactions among listeners. But when it comes to measuring pleasure, Salimpoor and team assert, “the role of dopamine has never been directly tested.”

“Now that we have evidence that dopamine, as the main chemical in reward and reinforcement, can be enhanced so easily by something like music, it could have implications later on for how to feel good naturally,” Salimpoor said.

Many of the study’s 200 participants brought in classical pieces to listen to while being analyzed.

“One piece of music kept coming up for different people was Barber's Adagio for Strings,” Salimpoor said. The second most popular piece in the group? Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9, second movement.

“It's an intellectual reward because it’s your cognitive interpretation,” said Salimpoor. “The more complicated the piece, the more it becomes rewarding for you.”

But the findings of the study are not all cut and dry. “Pleasure is a subjective phenomenon that is difficult to assess objectively,” Salimpoor’s report states.


Weigh in: Do you find listening to music gives the same amount of pleasure as eating (or other activities)? Leave a comment below.