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Neuroscience Reveals Why Favorite Songs Make Us Feel So Good

Music reward sensitivity relies on fronto-striatal circuits, McGill study finds.

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Source: goa nov/Shutterstock

A new study by researchers at the Montreal Neurological Institute and Hospital of McGill University in Canada reveals that it’s possible to increase or decrease someone's enjoyment of music by enhancing or disrupting certain brain circuits using a non-invasive technique called "transcranial magnetic stimulation" (TMS).

What makes this McGill study groundbreaking is that the neuroscientists were able to pinpoint that specific brain circuits involved in the anticipation of reward and surprise—known as the "fronto-striatal circuits"—are also essential for experiencing intense pleasure when listening to your favorite music. These findings were published online, November 20, in the journal Nature Human Behaviour.

Previous brain imaging studies have shown that stimulating fronto-striatal circuits via TMS triggers the release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter necessary for reward processing. In the latest McGill study, the researchers turned the TMS current on and off directly above brain regions that drive fronto-striatal function as study participants listened to snippets of random songs. Participants also rated their enjoyment of each tune in real-time. Throughout the experiment, the researchers monitored the various psychophysiological responses of each individual's nervous system in response to specific songs.

Senior author, Robert J. Zatorre, who heads the Zatorre Lab at McGill, and collaborators sum up the main takeaways from their new study in the abstract:

“Our results show that perceived pleasure, psychophysiological measures of emotional arousal, and the monetary value assigned to music, are all significantly increased by exciting fronto-striatal pathways, whereas inhibition of this system leads to decreases in all of these variables compared with sham stimulation. These findings support the hypothesis that fronto-striatal function causally mediates both the affective responses and motivational aspects of music-induced reward, and provide insights into how aesthetic responses emerge in the human brain.”

In a statement, Ernest Mas Herrero, a postdoctoral fellow, and the study's first author explained the results: "These findings show that the functioning of fronto-striatal circuits is essential for our enjoyment of music. This indicates that the role of these circuits in learning and motivation may be indispensable for the experience of musical pleasure.”

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The findings of this new fronto-striatal study dovetail with a different February 2017 study from McGill which found that listening to "happy" or "peaceful" songs prompted study participants to vividly recall positive autobiographical memories. Conversely, listening to "sad" or emotionally "scary" music caused study participants to recall negative autobiographical memories. This study, “More Than a Feeling: Emotional Cues Impact the Access and Experience of Autobiographical Memories,” was published in the journal Memory & Cognition.

For this study on autobiographical memories and certain types of music, the Canadian researchers tested how musical cues from two different aspects of the musical experience—emotional valence (positive or negative) and psychophysiological arousal (high or low)—influence the way that people recall autobiographical memories. Musical genres and songs were grouped into four retrieval cues: happy (positive emotions, high arousal), peaceful (positive emotions, low arousal), scary (negative emotions, high arousal), and sad (negative emotions, low arousal).

While listening to various musical selections, participants were asked to recall autobiographical memories from specific events associated with each song. As soon as a memory came to mind, participants pressed a computer key and typed in details of their music-triggered 'remembrance of things past.'

The researchers found that musical cues that were both high in arousal and positive in emotion immediately triggered the most vivid and detailed autobiographical memories. This music was generally classified as being "happy" based on positive emotions and high arousal. The relationship between the type of musical cue and whether it triggered the remembrance of a positive or a negative memory was also noted. As would be expected, scary music often triggered anxious memories, whereas sad music generally triggered memories of despair or heartbreak.

Interestingly, another 2014 study published in the Psychology of Music journal found that self-selected "beautiful but sad" music caused people to reminisce in a way that was bittersweet. As we all know, certain sad songs can actually help you feel better when you're feeling blue. Interestingly, the specific sad songs had to be chosen by the individual based on his or her associations and autobiographical memories. Random songs that were negative in valence and low in arousal tended to make people who were already melancholy feel even worse. (Two examples of 'beautiful but sad' songs that always make me verklempt in a comforting way are "Heart of Gold" by Neil Young and "Case of You" by Joni Mitchell. Both singers happen to be Canadian.)

Researching and writing about all of this neuroscience-based empirical evidence caused me to reminisce about specific songs that I find intensely pleasurable. And, how these songs fit into the framework of emotional valence (positive or negative) and psychophysiological arousal (high or low). Out of curiosity: What are some of your all-time favorite songs that never fail to trigger an intense positive emotional response and high levels of arousal? (Please leave a reply in the comments if you have time.)

For me, the first song that came to mind for having the ability to instantly pump up the volume of my fronto-striatal circuitry is “You Shook Me All Night Long" by AC/DC. Sadly, the band's co-founder and lead guitar player, Malcolm Young, died at the age of 64 on Nov. 18, 2017. In memoriam to Malcolm, I’ve had my favorite tracks from Back in Black in heavy rotation on my running playlist for the past few days.

Although I don’t generally love heavy metal music, there’s absolutely no way I can listen to certain AC/DC songs without blasting them at top volume and almost blowing out both my eardrums and speakers. These songs cause the activity of my fronto-striatal circuitry to ignite like high-thrust rocket fuel. Because of my idyllic adolescent autobiographical memories linked to “You Shook Me All Night Long" this song has positive emotional valence and high arousal. Based on the terminology used at McGill, this song would subjectively be classified as “happy” (positive emotion/high arousal) for me.

That said, I just played this unfamiliar AC/DC track for my singer-songwriter loving mom and she thinks it’s “scary” (negative emotion/high arousal). ;-P I'm half-kidding. The point is that AC/DC music doesn't affect my mother's fronto-striatal circuitry the same way it activates mine. Nor does she find intense pleasure in this music like I do. Anecdotally, musical preferences seem to be generational. I've observed this with my 10-year-old daughter, who generally dislikes most of the songs that I adore and vice versa.... Just like parents in the 1950s couldn't relate to their kids' fascination with Elvis, parents in the '60s didn't catch Beatlemania, my parents didn't get my obsession with Rocky Horror Picture Show in the '70s, and so on.

As part of a generational "name that pleasurable tune" brain game, what songs would you include on a playlist of anthems that give you intense listening pleasure by exciting your fronto-striatal circuitry? What stage of your life was this music from? One reason I'm taking a survey is because I did an internship for "Chartbeat" at Billboard magazine in college and still love chart-based statistics and music trivia.

Notably, the McGill researchers emphasize that although musical taste is subjective, any song that triggers feelings of intense pleasure for an individual looks the same in a fMRI regardless of the genre. Although the songs themselves will be different, the neurobiological response to any song that someone loves is universally the same in a brain scan.

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When I play this fronto-striatal activating name that tune game with myself, the first Top 40 music that comes to mind is from the summer of 1983. Any music from this era immediately causes me to "vividly recall positive autobiographical memories" and makes me feel young again on a molecular level. I was seventeen in '83 and had just discovered my love of running. Luckily, the Walkman had recently been invented. My bright yellow state-of-the-art "Sports" version had both a cassette player and AM/FM radio. So, I could run to my favorite Top 40 hits. It was a life-changing experience. The songs of that summer were pounded into my head on a neurobiological level.

Most memorably, the summer of 1983 Billboard Hot 100 Hits “Flashdance... What a Feeling,” “Holiday,” and “Little Red Corvette,” still evoke the most robust autonomic nervous system (ANS) response and intense listening pleasure for me. Undoubtedly, these songs excite my fronto-striatal circuitry. Like everybody, the music of my adolescence brings back a wave of vivid memories as if it was yesterday. All three of these songs are high arousal/positive emotions and would be classified as "happy," which corroborates the clinical findings mentioned earlier.

Interestingly, the song, “Every Breath You Take,” by The Police—which topped the charts for all of July and August in the summer of ‘83—remains one of my favorite running songs to this day and excites my fronto-striatal circuitry in unexpected ways. Technically, this is a “sad” song as marked by low arousal and negative emotions of the lyrics. Nevertheless, "Every Breath You Take" gives me almost as much oomph as other “disco” songs from this era that have a much higher BPM and energy level.

Lastly, for some reason, even though I love Annie Lennox and most Eurythmics songs, I’ve always despisedSweet Dreams (Are Made of This)." Unfortunately for me, the majority of people in the world seem to love this song. Therefore, it was played incessantly on the radio in the Summer of ‘83. This song always gives me the creeps and sounds like nails on a chalkboard in my ears. How about you? Again, most people seem to have a more positive fronto-striatal response to "Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)" based on the massive popularity of this song which made the Top 10 Year-End Billboard Hits list for 1983.

Below are the YouTube videos of the aforementioned songs for anyone who isn't familiar with this music or wants to activate his or her fronto-striatal circuitry:

"Fronto-Striatal Activating" Playlist | Summer of 1983

"Little Red Corvette" —Prince

"You Shook Me All Night Long" —AC/DC

"Beat It" —Michael Jackson

"Flashdance... What a Feeling" —Irene Cara

“Holiday” —Madonna

“Every Breath You Take” —The Police

What all-time favorite personal anthems would you include on your “Fronto-Striatal Activating Playlist"? If you have time, please share other songs that give you intense pleasure (or displeasure!) in the comments. Thanks.


Mas-Herrero, Ernest, Alain Dagher, Robert J. Zatorre. "Modulating Musical Reward Sensitivity Up and Down with Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation." Nature Human Behaviour (First published online: November 20, 2017) DOI: 10.1038/s41562-017-0241-z

Sheldon, Signy, and Julia Donahue. "More than a feeling: Emotional cues impact the access and experience of autobiographical memories." Memory & Cognition (First published online February 27, 2017) DOI: 10.3758/s13421-017-0691-6

Van den Tol, Annemieke JM, and Jane Edwards. "Listening to Sad Music in Adverse Situations: How Music Selection Strategies Relate to Self-Regulatory Goals, Listening Effects, and Mood Enhancement." Psychology of Music (2015) DOI: 10.1177/0305735613517410

Salimpoor, Valorie N., Iris van den Bosch, Natasa Kovacevic, Anthony Randal McIntosh, Alain Dagher, and Robert J. Zatorre. "Interactions Between the Nucleus Accumbens and Auditory Cortices Predict Music Reward Value." Science (2013) DOI: 10.1126/science.1231059

Martínez-Molina, Noelia, Ernest Mas-Herrero, Antoni Rodríguez-Fornells, Robert J. Zatorre, and Josep Marco-Pallarés. "Neural Correlates of Specific Musical Anhedonia." Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (2016) DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1611211113

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