From emo to hip-hop: the neurobiology of music


I am guilty of trying to force my music taste onto other people. You see, I’m quite sure that if everyone would just listen hard enough to the dulcet tones of synthesised prog rock or whatever musical phase I’m going through that week, they would experience the same intense musical trip that I do. And yet no-one ever does. Why is this? It seems that some people are hard-wired to find indie-folk beats emotionally stirring, whilst others find hardcore screamo to be the only genre that speaks to them. More fundamentally, why does music invoke emotion in us at all?

It has always seemed strange to me that what is essentially just organised sound can have such control over my mood. Music is hard-wired into our culture. A paper in Nature Neuroscience last year went some way towards explaining this; the researchers scanned the brains of people listening to either pleasurable or neutral music, and found that the people listening to the pleasurable music experienced dopamine activity in the mesolimbic reward system. This system inside the brain is associated with the pleasure, and has evolved to reinforce biological behaviours which increase our chances of passing down genes. Without getting too bogged down in detail, dopamine acts as a chemical messenger by binding to dopamine receptors on neurons, and changing the electrical potential across them. This is what happiness is – the changing of the electrical potential across certain areas of the brain. And for some bizarre reason, the soundwaves of Parkend’s cheese floor triggers this series of reactions in some people, whilst the heavy drumbeats of Cellar does this for others.

Why do we enjoy music? Short of cavemen using shoegaze to express where the nearest bison was, it is difficult to argue that music appreciation could have been of evolutionary benefit. This is the crux of an argument that has been ongoing in the field of neuroscience for decades; is music appreciation ingrained in the brain for some past evolutionary benefit, or is a consequence of our adaptations for some other process? The famous cognitive neuroscientist Steven Pinker likened music appreciation to a cheesecake; we do not reproduce more if we have cheesecake. In fact, if anything, by eating tons of cheesecake we are somewhat less likely to reproduce. But over millions of years of adaptation, we developed a love of fatty, sugary foods, that was clearly beneficial when we were busy roaming over prehistoric savannahs. This is no longer true since it is now rather easy to get sugar and fat into your diet, but these ancient preferences still remain. To this end we have developed cheesecake to satisfy those evolutionary cravings. Perhaps the same is true of music; we experienced a selective pressure to appreciate rhythm and tone to allow humans to develop language.

Music is sound which exaggerates many of the features of language, and so maybe music appreciation is a by-product of the adaptations we required for language. And yet we are still left with the question of music taste; are we born with an instinctive personal music taste, or is our music taste purely a result of our environment? Cue classic nature vs. nuture argument. Psychologists have argued that we use music taste as a badge to signify our own personality to other people, and this seems true to an extent. Nevertheless, I think most music lovers would argue that they experience more musical ‘chills’ to music attuned to their own taste; this would mean that certain frequencies and amplitudes of sound waves trigger neuron activity in some people, but not in others. This seems plausible; our music taste depends on a combination of neuronal architecture specified (at least in part) by our genes, and on a number of social influences. To conclude, music presses addiction buttons in our brain, that were probably originally there to reward beneficial behaviours. In the words of Valorie Salimpoor, one of the Nature Neuroscience researchers- ‘There are actual physiological changes that happen in your brain in the motivation and reward circuits that keep you coming back to music. It suggests that music is mildly addictive.’

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