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updated: 3/21/2011 7:21 AM

Music makes us happy -- here's why

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  • Scientists are finding that listening to music triggers a positive response within our brains.

      Scientists are finding that listening to music triggers a positive response within our brains.

 
The Washington Post

I'm slightly embarrassed to admit it, but I distinctly remember getting the chills the first time I heard that kicky anthem of 1980s bubble-gum pop, "Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go," by Wham. I then begged my mother to buy me the record, which I must have played about a million times before moving on to the likes of Michael Jackson and Madonna, followed by the Grateful Dead and Phish, then U2 and the Dave Matthews Band and, most lately, the Avett Brothers and Mumford and Sons.

With my ever-evolving taste in tunes, there's been one constant: Music has always had the power to make me blissfully happy. So it didn't necessarily come as a surprise when I read that researchers have now proved that listening to your favorite melodies and harmonies can trigger the brain to release large amounts of dopamine, a chemical that sends "feel good" signals to the rest of the body and plays a role in both motivation and addiction.

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The small study, published in Nature Neuroscience, used brain scans to show that college students released significantly more dopamine when they heard their preferred music (which ranged from Beethoven to Led Zeppelin to the Israeli trance band Infected Mushroom) as opposed to someone else's tunes.

"It's interesting, because music is an abstract sequence of tones -- you're not really getting anything for it -- but somehow the way the brain is interpreting these tones, you get this intense physiological response, and the most potent reinforcing chemical in the brain is released, creating a wanting, a desire, a craving and saying, 'Do this again,'" says the study's lead author, Valorie Salimpoor, a neuroscientist at the Montreal Neurological Institute in Canada.

She points out that not only was the potent neurochemical released at the moment of peak emotional response -- when you might feel the aforementioned chills, for example, or your hair standing on end -- but also the mere anticipation of that peak arousal was enough to cause an increase in dopamine.

"We didn't expect to see this," she says, "but what it means is that when people are following along with these sequences of tones, there seems to be a developing sense of anticipation or expectations that in itself is creating some sort of craving and a need to hear the next note, and that's what leading up to this intense pleasure."

This biological buzz may help explain why music has played a key role in almost every culture and why we continue to spend so much money on iPods, better speakers, concert tickets and the like.

"The study provides some explanation for why people find listening to their favorite music a relaxing and enjoyable experience, and why we keep doing it, even though it's not critical to one's life functions," agrees neurologist Ted Rothstein, an associate professor at George Washington University's medical school.

He points out that the dopamine system more typically kicks in with behaviors that are necessary for survival, such as sex and eating, as well as the use of addictive substances such as cocaine and nicotine.

"In human beings, there's no obvious physiological benefit from listening to music ... but on the other hand, we've known for a long time that when you listen to music, it's enjoyable, it's relaxing, your blood pressure goes down, and there can be other positive effects."

Indeed, this study fits quite neatly into the growing body of research on music therapy, which has suggested that listening to your favorite aria or pop hit can help you sleep better, lessen the pain associated with surgery or conditions including arthritis and fibromyalgia, decrease stress, and improve anxiety and depression, among other health benefits.

Salimpoor stresses that her team's results go a long way toward explaining why other recent studies have shown that music and dance therapy can be incredibly effective for patients with Parkinson's disease, which is characterized by low dopamine levels.

"This is the science behind what we see all the time in practice," agrees Nancy Morgan, director of arts and humanities at the Lombardi Cancer Center at Georgetown University Hospital, which provides music therapy programs for patients.

"We have musicians here who play for people who've just come out of surgery -- a flautist goes up and plays for them and these patients, who are in tremendous pain, at the end of the playing, they are almost pain-free. ... Now we know that perhaps dopamine is playing a role."

But while music may have the power to make us happier and perhaps even healthier in some ways, it isn't likely to make us smarter.

Developmental psychologist Penny Glass, director of the Child Development Program at Children's National Medical Center, stresses that the "Mozart effect" -- a theory that classical music helps boost intelligence, particularly in babies and small children -- remains controversial.

"After the initial surge of excitement and information, people were unable to really find supportive evidence when the research tightened up," she explains. "Now that doesn't mean that listening to music isn't a pleasant thing to do, ... but it does have its limits."

I'm willing to bet that the natural high of a hearing a really good, cheesy song on the radio is reward enough for most of us.

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