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Why Is Listening to Music So Pleasurable?

Exploring the fascinating overlap between the enjoyment of a melody and a meal.

Key points

  • The joy of listening to music is shaped by our musical experience as a teen and our cultural background.
  • The pleasure of music is processed in the phylogenetically newer frontal cortex.
  • Music pleasure also relies on primitive reward-related structures that allow the enjoyment of eating.

Restaurateurs want you to enjoy your dining experience. However, it’s not only about the food: ambiance matters. The music within each restaurant is carefully chosen according to the presumed tastes of their clientele with the goal of enhancing the experience of eating. Scientists know quite a lot about the brain mechanisms that reward us for eating; little is known about how the brain interprets the aesthetic experience of listening to music and whether they activate similar brain regions.

The joy of eating is processed by a set of brain regions that constitute the classic reward circuit. These include the ventral tegmental area, where all our dopamine neurons live, the nucleus accumbens (the most important reward center), the insula cortex, and a small region of cortex on the middle face of the frontal lobes.

This circuitry has been conserved by evolution and appears in similar locations, usually similar neurotransmitters, in reptiles, birds, and mammals. Yet, the ability to experience pleasure from music is considered a uniquely human trait (although birds interpret pitch differently than humans do, they will move rhythmically to music). The enjoyment of food is innate and highly preserved across species for an extremely good reason: survival. In contrast, musical preferences are shaped by whatever we listen to as teens and cultural background (Greenberg et al., 2015). Neuroimaging studies suggest that that music-induced pleasure is mediated by the communication between the ancient reward circuitry involving dopamine and higher-order cortical regions.

In a recent study (Mas-Herrero et al., 2020), hedonic responses to food were used as a control condition to determine common and distinct brain responses associated with the pleasure of listening to music. The authors hypothesized that the pleasure of listening to music would be processed in the phylogenetically newer prefrontal cortex as compared to the pleasure of eating. They conducted a meta-analysis of neuroimaging studies that investigated brain responses to music- and food-induced pleasure.

Music, as compared to food, appears to have some unique reward circuitry in the brain. These areas are particularly important.

The ventral striatum (and the nucleus accumbens in particular) is often referred to as the brain’s most important pleasure center. The pleasures of eating and listening to music powerfully activate the ventral striatum. One of the main inputs to this region is the release of the neurotransmitter dopamine. When scientists pharmacologically enhanced the function of dopamine in this area, the patients reported significantly enhanced feelings of subjective pleasure described as “music-induced chills” (Ferreri et al., 2019). In contrast, blocking the actions of dopamine completely reduced the music-induced emotional responses.

Learning is also crucial for the experience of musical pleasure. One area called the superior temporal gyrus (located conveniently next to each ear) is responsible for perceiving the characteristics of music, such as pitch, tonal pattern, and musical imagery, and for helping us remember that we like those characteristics.

An area of the cortex called the inferior frontal gyrus is activated while listening to pleasant music, but only on the right side of the brain. This is consistent with a long-held view that the right hemisphere is responsible for processing music rather than language. People who suffer with amusia (a deficit in music perception and production) show significant anomalies in the right inferior frontal cortex.

The ventral-medial prefrontal cortex (located just a few inches behind the bridge of your nose) responds to both food- and music-induced pleasure and then informs the ventral striatum. Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) studies have shown that activation of this brain area consistently correlates with subjective reports that the music they are listening to is considered pleasurable. Recent studies have shown that music activates anterior portions of the prefrontal cortex more reliably than food rewards. Patients with frontotemporal lobe dementia may develop musicophilia, a specific craving for music.

The insula, a region of the brain that tells you whether you like or dislike a particular sensory experience, was consistently engaged across both music and food rewards. This is not surprising, given that the insular cortex is an integration hub involved in sensory, cognitive, motivational and emotional functions.

Overall, recent studies have provided clear evidence that music-induced pleasure relies on the engagement of both higher-order cortical regions involved in auditory cognition and somewhat primitive reward-related structures that are usually associated with the enjoyment of eating. (For more about the effect of eating on the brain, see my bookYour Brain on Food.)


Mas-Herrero E, et al., (2020) Common and distinct neural correlates of music and food-induced pleasure: a coordinate-based meta-analysis of neuroimaging studies. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews doi: 10.1016/j.neubiorev.2020.12.008.

Ferreri L, et al., (2019) Dopamine modulates the reward experiences elicited by music. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U.S.A. 116, 3793–3798.

Greenberg DM, et al., (2015) Musical preferences are linked to cognitive styles. PLoS ONE 10, e0131151.

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