Queen and the Brain’s Music Reward Center

Don’t stop me now, 'cause I’m having a good time.

Posted Feb 27, 2019

©2018 Cathy Malchiodi, PhD
"I Think We're Alone Now," from the visual journals of Cathy Malchiodi, PhD © 2018
Source: ©2018 Cathy Malchiodi, PhD

Like many psychotherapists who include music in sessions, I have often wondered how certain chords, intonations, or riffs are intensely pleasurable, often in an embodied way. Two recent studies provide some important answers to this question and perhaps explain why the current resurgence of the music of Queen and Freddie Mercury is more than just a movie phenomenon. 

Researchers [Gold, et al., 2019] at Montreal Neurological Institute of McGill University had 20 participants engage in a musical reward learning task. Each individual chose a color, then a direction. Each choice resulted in a probability of leading to either a consonant, pleasurable, musical excerpt or a dissonant, non-pleasurable one. Over time the participants learned which choices were more likely to produce consonant and dissonant music. Individuals performed this task while their brain activity was measured with functional magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).

The researchers used an algorithm to determine the reward prediction error for each choice—the difference between an expected reward and the actual reward received—and compared that data to the MRI data. They found that reward prediction errors correlated with activity in the nucleus accumbens, a brain region that activates when the subject is experiencing musical pleasure. What is particularly interesting about this study is it is the first time an aesthetic reward such as music has been shown to create such a response; previous studies used more tangible rewards such as food or money.

This study seems to support that music can trigger an actual neurobiological response capable of engaging the brain’s reward system to potentially pleasurable effect. This could motivate us to listen again and again. Similarly, a second recent study [Ferreri, et al., 2019] explored just how the brain translates a structured sequence of music into a rewarding experience to better understand abstract rewards in humans. Previous studies have underscored the role of dopamine in music-evoked pleasure, so this is not particularly new to research efforts music's positive impacts. However, these researchers tackled the question through actually manipulating dopamine to explore if there was indeed a causal role in musical pleasure and music-related motivational responses [such as buying music]. In brief, the study did show a causal role of dopamine in musical pleasure; the research team suggests that dopamine plays a major role in the positive sensations that people experience from listening to preferred music.

Why are these recent studies important? In applying expressive arts in psychotherapy, music can not only support positive cognitions but also can be a regulatory experience for many individuals. From personal experience, I know that there is a wonderful guitar riff at the end of David Bowie’s “Starman” that sends shivers up my spine and induces a sensation of aliveness every time I hear it. While everyone I encounter in sessions has different musical preferences, preference for Queen as a source of pleasurable sensations comes up more frequently lately, in part due to the recent movie Bohemian Rhapsody. Queen’s catalog of songs has also cut across genres, encouraged audience participation and have widely appealed to multiple generations.

But there is another explanation — musical rewards inherent to the uniqueness of expressive vocalizations of Freddie Mercury and Queen’s artistry and complex musicality. While Queen produced a number of less complex compositions, they usually added something to each song such as a truly killer guitar solo or unexpected yet satisfying variations in rhythm or harmonies. In fact, they introduced a remarkable amount of musical devices in almost every one of their most popular songs. They also frequently used disorienting but pleasurable rhythms that are tricky but enticing to follow. For example, “Don’t Stop Me Now” (my favorite feel-good number as of this writing, followed by “It’s a Hard Life”) is a song with an unusual arrangement of verses and bridges (typically the section between the verse and the chorus) that takes the listener through to a solo and a moving ending. In my opinion, like many Queen songs, it taps the brain’s reward center for multiple moments of gratifying sensations that engage and leaving the listener wanting more.

To bring this back around to psychotherapy and expressive arts, I am working on a standard protocol for strategically introducing client-selected pleasurable musical moments into sessions and using Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing [EMDR] methodology. The goal is to hypothetically “install” these experiences of positive cognition as brain-wise, embodied memory via music as a value-added outcome to expressive arts treatment. But until then, the next time you want a surge of dopamine or just want to feel alive, start with that favorite piece that gives your mind and body its own spine-tingling reward.


Gold, B. P., Mas-Herrero, E., Zeighami, Y., Benovoy, M., Dagher, A., & Zatorre, R. J. (2019). Musical reward prediction errors engage the nucleus accumbens and motivate learning. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 201809855. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1809855116

Ferreri, L., Mas-Herrero, E., Zatorre, R., Ripollés, P., Gomez-Andres, A., Alicart, H.,  Olivé, G.,  Marco-Pallarés, J., Antonijoan, R.,  Valle, M., Riba, J., and  Rodriguez-Fornells, A. (2019). Dopamine modulates the reward experiences elicited by music. PNAS, 116 (9) 3793-3798.  https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1811878116