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.
The small study, published in February in Nature Neuroscience, used brain scans to show that college students released significantly more dopamine when they heard their preferred music (which was as varied as Beethoven, Led Zeppelin and the Israeli trance band Infected Mushroom) as opposed to someone elses tunes.
Because music is an abstract sequence of tones – youre 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 studys lead author, Valorie Salimpoor, a neuroscientist at the Montreal Neurological Institute in Canada.
Not only was the potent neurochemical released at the moment of peak emotional response – when you might feel those goosebumps – but the mere anticipation of that peak arousal was also enough to cause an increase in dopamine.
This biological buzz may help explain why music has played a key role in almost every culture and why we spend so much money on iPods, better speakers, concert tickets and the like.