The Connection Between Music and Sociability

New research uncovers links between enjoyment of music and social interaction.

Posted Feb 28, 2020 | Reviewed by Devon Frye

martin-dm/iStock
Listening to music activates reward centers in the brain in most people.
Source: martin-dm/iStock

Beethoven or the Beatles? Jazz or Jay-Z?

Taste in music varies considerably, but whatever people enjoy listening to, they often report an emotional response that has a touch of the physical to it. Maybe you feel beautiful music gives you the chills, or makes your hair stand on end. Those descriptions are not just metaphors. We really do have physiological reactions in response to music.

Or rather, most of us do. By studying a rare person who does not like or respond to music at all, psychologist Psyche Loui of Northeastern University has discovered that connectivity patterns in the brain link finding music rewarding with finding social interaction enjoyable. That led her to a new study of the larger link between social reward and music reward, which she presented earlier this month at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Seattle. “It opens up a window into why we have music in the first place,” Loui says. 

About five years ago, Loui and her colleagues wanted to quantify emotional reactions to music. They turned to physiological measures like skin conductance, which reflects the variation in electrical activity in the skin when a person is aroused. “Whenever people get strong emotional responses to music, when they're listening to music that they enjoy, they show peaks of skin conductance and then also faster heart rate,” Loui says. “When you're saying that you get chills when you're listening to music, it's not just a figure of speech, you're actually physiologically responding to music.”

When they then compared brain structure in 10 people who report getting chills all the time when they listened to music and 10 people who didn’t, they found differences in connectivity patterns in the brain. People with stronger emotional responses to music tend to have larger and more connected pathways between the auditory areas (specifically the superior temporal gyrus, important for auditory perception) and the emotion and reward-sensitive and social-sensitive parts of the brain (such as the insula and medial prefrontal cortex.)

While it had been known before that auditory and reward systems were active when listening to music we enjoy, the discovery of this connection between them was new. “It turns out that music is the kind of auditory channel towards the reward and emotion centers and social centers of the brain,” Loui says. 

After that paper got published, a man Loui calls BW got in touch with her. “He said he had never understood why people enjoy music,” Loui says. BW has a condition called musical anhedonia. First described in 2013, the condition means people are insensitive to the rewards of listening to music.

BW is not someone who doesn’t like art, Loui says. “He goes to museums. He's an avid photographer. He likes good food. He likes long walks on the beach. He just doesn't like music.” He told Loui that when he saw a person at the grocery store with headphones in their ears bopping to music, he could never understand why anyone would do that. “This really seems to be a somewhat socially debilitating experience,” Loui says. “[BW] likened it to a coming-out experience with his friends when he finally admitted that he's the one who doesn't feel emotional responses to music.” 

In studying BW, she saw an opportunity to ask larger questions about music and reward. When he and other control subjects took a survey measuring reward sensitivity, both to auditory stimuli and nonauditory stimuli, BW scored more than five standard deviations below the mean in music reward sensitivity. When they checked physiological measures like skin conductance and heart rate, there was no response. In other words, BW wasn’t just saying he didn’t enjoy music—his body was also showing that he didn’t enjoy music. 

Finally, Loui and her colleagues looked at BW’s brain connectivity. They found that the auditory areas of his brain were less connected to reward centers than what they saw in a large group of controls. In 2019, Loui and her colleague Amy Belfi suggested a model for what they call “the intricate, intimate, and flexible coupling between the auditory and reward systems.”

Loui believes these findings have ramifications far beyond the rare individuals with musical anhedonia. “Since the condition is so unique and specific to music, at least to auditory stimuli, it helps us understand what makes music special, including why humans have developed music appreciation in the first place,” she says. “Given that we know that music is important for social bonding across different cultures and that music is a way for the auditory system to connect to the reward system, one strong prediction we make is that music reward sensitivity can partially explain individual differences in our sensitivity to social reward.”

With that in mind, she and her colleagues recently conducted a large-scale online survey of both music reward responses and social reward responses. The latter questionnaire measured prosocial interactions and whether individuals tended to have kind and reciprocal relationships with other people. The researchers found a significant correlation between social reward and music reward, and the association was independent of musical training or ability.

“People who are more sensitive to the rewards of music listening also tend to be more prosocial and enjoy social interactions more,” Loui says. “People who have musical anhedonia score lower than their non-musically-anhedonic counterparts in social reward.” The results of this study, which Loui presented in Seattle, will be published later this year.

This newly discovered connectivity between the auditory and reward systems may be why we feel emotions in response to music, Loui says. “I think that there's a role of music for social bonding." She also thinks there are implications from this work for other conditions with low social reward, such as postpartum depression in new mothers. "If we find that people who don’t love music have differences in specific systems in the brain, then that gives us an idea that these specific systems are related to the love of music. And then we can look at what else in life engages these same systems and start to ask what other abilities or human capacities are linked to music.” 

Copyright: Lydia Denworth, 2020

If you enjoyed this post, sign up here to have the blog delivered to your inbox.

References