Music is a potent stimulus for humans, capable of deeply influencing our emotions. But why does music have such a powerful effect on our emotional state?
In this ‘Practice Project’ blog, we return to the world of neuroscience. In an earlier blog, we highlighted neuroscientific research which shows that - when we learn to play an instrument, and then practice it - our brain actively optimizes the nerves we use to execute the relevant motor skills.
This time around, we examine the findings of a landmark study by Valorie Salimpoor and her colleagues in 2011, which looked at how our brains process the music we hear, and specifically the relationship between our musical experiences and the pleasure that we derive from them.
The results of the study are fascinating, and start to help us understand why we feel the way we do when we play or listen to music - or even just when we anticipate doing so - and how we might harness those feelings to enhance our own musical experiences, and the experiences of those who listen to us perform.
The role of dopamine
At the heart of the study was the intricate process of neurotransmission. A neurotransmitter is a chemical which is released at the end of a nerve fibre when triggered by a nerve impulse. In simple terms, neurotransmitters allow nerve impulses to travel across the spaces between nerve fibres - known as synapses - on their way to and from our central nervous system.
We know that dopamine, often called the 'feel-good' neurotransmitter, is central to the pleasure and reward systems in our brain. But Salimpoor and her team also found that dopamine plays a key role during our musical experiences, affecting how we connect with music as performers and listeners.
The research study used advanced neural imaging techniques to monitor the brain activity of participants as they listened to ‘pleasurable’ and ‘neutral’ music of their choice. Specifically, the researchers tracked dopamine levels in the brains of the participants during two distinct phases of their experience of the music: the ‘anticipation’ phase and the phase of ‘peak emotional response’.
The results of the study demonstrate that music - an abstract, intangible stimulus - can induce the same feelings of euphoria and craving as tangible stimuli, such as food, money and psychoactive drugs. This was evidenced among the participants by the release of dopamine in the striatum - the part of the brain involved in feelings of pleasure and reward - during the peak emotional phase of listening to music.
The intense feelings created by a dopamine release are known as “chills”. When we hit the perfect note, or when we finally master a challenging piece, the feeling we get isn't just a subjective, emotional response. Its an objective, physical response to the music at a neurological level.
This helps to explain why different musical experiences are so highly valued among humans and can have such a profound emotional impact on us. Music is not crucial for survival or reproduction, and yet it stimulates ancient reward circuitry in our brains - suggesting that musical experiences can significantly benefit our physical and mental well-being.
The power of anticipation
The study also uncovered a distinction between the ‘anticipation phase’ and the ‘peak emotional phase’ of a chills-inducing musical experience. Among the participants, one part of the brain was much more involved during the anticipation of an emotional response to the music they were listening to, but a completely different part of the brain was involved as they actually experienced those emotions i.e. while the music was playing.
Anticipation of the pleasure associated with hearing a beautiful or memorable passage of music can also lead to a dopamine release, albeit through a different anatomical pathway. Understanding this can help us approach practice sessions and performances with greater awareness and intention.
For instance, musicians can consciously build anticipation by focusing on the emotional and harmonic journey of the music. Likewise, teachers can guide students to understand the emotional structure of a piece, incorporating the concept of musical anticipation into their lessons, and learning to guide the emotional journey of their audience when they perform.
The very anticipation of a musical reward, like the climax of a phrase, can result in dopamine being released in the brain. This anticipation can be built into our practice and performance to enhance the emotional impact of the music we play.
We can also take more time to experience and savour the emotional peaks of the music we play or listen to, knowing they are linked to deep feelings of pleasure and reward. Further research in this field has explored how music can be used to regulate our mood; and also in therapeutic settings, to help alleviate the symptoms of different mental illnesses. We will hopefully be able to cover this in more detail in a future blog.
Understanding the role of dopamine in our musical experiences can help us connect emotionally with the pieces we play, enriching not only our experiences but also those of our audience. The research by Salimpoor and her colleagues also demonstrates that music is not just an abstract art form, but a powerful emotional stimulus that can trigger tangible chemical responses in our brains.
Based on this research, we can begin to understand how the emotions induced by music are created - among other things - by expectation, delay, tension, surprise and anticipation. And why music can be used so effectively, in religious rituals for example, and also in marketing and the media, to elicit intense emotional responses and manipulate our emotional state.
So, the next time you pick up your instrument to play, or settle down to listen to a favourite piece of music, take a moment to consider the neurological impact of the experience. Listening to and playing music is much more than a pastime or an art form; it is an integral part of our lives, inducing intense pleasure and boosting our emotional well-being. Let the dopamine run wild.