Why the music we love makes us feel so good

Got a favourite song or piece of music? Something that makes you feel really good every time you hear it?

The music I love makes me want to crank the volume up to max and dance around the room, ( out of sight of the neighbours preferably) and even just thinking about my favourites produces a greater sense of well being.

That “feel good” experience or “chill” comes from a surge in dopamine being released in our brain. This is the neurotransmitter associated with “reward” associated with other pleasurable activities such as eating and sex.

And yes, the anticipation of hearing that favourite piece does produce dopamine release in the same way as when you actually listen to it.

That intense emotional response to music produces physiological change: an increase in heart and breathing rate, change in skin conductance and temperature. The more pleasurable the musical experience, the greater the physiological response.

Researchers from McGill University have used a combination of PET and fMRI scans to show that dopamine release is greater for pleasurable music rather than neutral music.

Why this is of importance is that dopamine is a neurotransmitter for establishing and reinforcing behaviours that enhances our ability in evolutionary terms to survive.

Using this combination of scanning techniques enabled the researchers to demonstrate how different systems of the brain can link to work together. Firstly the experience or anticipation involving the cognitive and motor systems and secondly the emotional component involving the limbic part of the brain. It was also the first time they were able to show a tangible and measurable response of dopamine release to an abstract reward.

So, next time you are set to enjoy an all time favourite song or classical piece, crank it up, sing along and savour the accompanying surge of dopamine associated with it.

Ref: 1. Valorie N Salimpoor, Mitchel Benovoy, Kevin Larcher, Alain Dagher, Robert J Zatorre. Anatomically distinct dopamine release during anticipation and experience of peak emotion to music. Nature Neuroscience, 2011; DOI: 10.1038/nn.2726 2. Valorie N. Salimpoor, Mitchel Benovoy, Gregory Longo, Jeremy R. Cooperstock, Robert J. Zatorre. The Rewarding Aspects of Music Listening Are Related to Degree of Emotional Arousal. PLoS ONE, 2009; 4 (10): e7487 DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0007487