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Why Is Music So Pleasurable?

Pleasant musical moments engage the brain's pleasure system.

Key points

  • Listening to music often evokes intense emotions.
  • Much of music’s pleasure comes from the patterns of melody, rhythm, and sudden changes.
  • Musical pleasure, like food and sex, motivates us to engage in music.

Listening to music can be a highly pleasurable activity. Music communicates emotions, moods, or a state of mind that seems beneficial to our quality of life. How does music evoke emotions and pleasure in listeners?

Musical pleasure

Listening to music engages the reward system. The experience of intensely pleasurable music can cause dopamine release in the mesolimbic reward system (Salimpoor et al, 2015). Engaging with music can trigger the same biological and psychological responses associated with other highly fundamental rewards, such as food, sex, or rewards like money.

Musical pleasure is commonly called “chills” or “frissons.” It is the pleasurable bodily reactions such as goosebumps that many people experience while listening to certain musical passages. The pleasure is a key element of how much money one is willing to pay for a given musical piece.

However, not everyone experiences chills in response to music. A small portion of the population (about 3 to 4 percent) suffers from musical anhedonia. These individuals do not enjoy or appreciate music, but they still find joy from other things that activate the reward systems. Research shows that musical anhedonia occurs because of the absence of interactions between auditory networks and the reward system (Belfi & Loui, 2020).

Musical surprise

Musical pleasure is triggered by expectations and surprises. Much of music’s pleasure comes from the patterns of melody, rhythm, and sudden changes. An unexpected change in intensity and tempo is one of the primary means by which music provokes a strong emotional response in listeners (Huron, 2006). Composers can play with these expectations: meet expectations, violate them, or even put them on hold.

With enough exposure, the difference between expected and actual events decreases such that listeners begin to anticipate these events. And music becomes less pleasing. This explains why our liking change over time. Nothing is ever as good as that first time. As humans, we get used to things.

Novelty vs. familiarity

Our preferences are shaped by two opposing factors: familiarity and novelty. Our preferences sometimes lean toward novel things (new music, products, or shops). On the other hand, we sometimes prefer familiar things that evoke nostalgia. For example, a song may evoke a memory of the day a listener landed her first job. This memory, in turn, may evoke strong feelings of excitement and optimism the listener felt on that day.

The famous Wundt inverted-U shape explains our appreciation of music in relation to familiarity and novelty. We may like rather little on first hearing, grow to like it more on relistening, and then eventually become bored by it. Pleasurable music strikes a balance between predictable events and moderately unpredictable events that produce a surprise. For example, Gold et al. (2019) have demonstrated that listeners preferred songs of medium complexity, which involved features such as predictability and familiarity.

In sum, musical surprise explains why we like music so much. Tension stimulated by expectation, and its denial or fulfillment are in large part responsible for emotional arousal and pleasure in music. Music that is initially pleasing, with repeated exposure, begins to sound predictable and, hence, less pleasing. Thus, learning about musical structure and performance could be inherently rewarding.

Image by wurliburli from Pixabay
Source: Image by wurliburli from Pixabay

References

Belfi, A. M., Loui, P. (2020). Musical anhedonia and rewards of music listening: Current advances and a proposed model. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1464, 99–114.

Gold, B.P., et al. (2019) Predictability and uncertainty in the pleasure of music: a reward for learning?. JNeurosci.

Huron DB. (2006), Sweet anticipation: Music and the psychology of expectation. MIT press.

Salimpoor, V.N., D.H. Zald, R.J. Zatorre,et al. 2015. Predictions and the brain: how musical sounds become rewarding. Trends Cogn. Sci.19:86–91.

Zatorre, R.J. (2018). Why do we love music? Cerebrum 2018: pii: cer-16-18.

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