Think about the first time you heard your favorite song. How did it make you feel? Did it take you a minute to warm up to the tune, or did you know right away that you were listening to something amazing? For me, it was the latter. I was a senior in high school, obsessed with the hippy jam bands that were popular in the late 90’s, and I found a cover of Bob Dylan’s All Along the Watchtower performed by Dave Matthews Band, with Trey Anastasio from Phish playing lead guitar and John Popper from Blues Traveler on harmonica. I still get chills when I hear it: the song opens slowly with sparse guitars and vocals, before building to a frenzied climax capped by a lot of yelling and guitar and harmonica solos. I must’ve listened to it on repeat for a few hours before my parents yelled at me to turn that racket down, people are trying to sleep!
My experience is fairly common: music is capable of evoking powerful emotions. But why? One research team, led by Valorie Salimpoor and Robert Zatorre, has looked to the brain for an explanation. In a 2011 paper, they found a link between the neurotransmitter dopamine, music, and experiencing a strong emotional response. Participants in the study listened to samples of songs while their brains were scanned using MRI. When people felt an emotional response to a piece of music, the researchers found activation in areas of the brain associated with increased dopamine release. This wasn’t especially surprising, given that dopamine is generally associated with rewarding stimuli, like drugs or chocolate. What was surprising, however, was that dopamine levels also increased before the emotional peak of the music, indicating that the participants were somehow anticipating the emotional rush that was about to come.
This month, Salimpoor and Zatorre published a follow-up study, investigating whether brain responses to music could be used to predict how much people would like a particular tune. Like before, participants listened to music during a brain scan, but this time, they were asked to “bid” up to $2 on the songs they liked best. The researchers then did some correlational analyses to see if specific brain activation patterns were associated with higher bids. Though many parts of the brain are active during music listening, researchers found only one spot - the nucleus accumbens, part of that same dopamine reward system mentioned in their previous paper - was preferentially activated for songs that elicited the highest bids. In short, if your nucleus accumbens is active while you’re listening to a song, you’re probably enjoying it.
Intuitively, this all makes a lot of sense, right? When you’re listening to a song you love, you feel differently than when you’re listening to songs you hate or don’t care about, and since all of our feelings are rooted in our brains, it isn’t surprising at all that there are different patterns of brain activation and neurotransmitter activity for different tunes. For musicians, this could have some interesting implications. Record labels could someday ask focus groups to listen to new music during MRI scans, and pick and choose which bands might be successful based solely on the listeners’ brain activity. I don’t think this is likely to happen anytime soon, but you never know - the music industry is reeling, and being able to accurately predict the next big hit would be a very valuable tool indeed.