What Our Brain Looks Like When It Hears Music

Valorie Salimpoor - effects of music on brain

The map above is your brain on music, created by neuroscientists Robert Zatorre and Valorie Salimpoor. The researchers have been exploring the relationship between music and its impact on the human brain for more than a decade.

Music we enjoy causes several different regions of the brain “light up” during an fMRI scan — which detects blood flow in different parts of the brain. 

Here is what is happening when you hear a new piece of music:

The inferior frontal cortex compares new sounds we hear with all of the older templates of sounds we have stored in our superior temporal gyrus. What we think of as our “taste” in music depends on all of these old patterns we have filed away.

Our brains like patterns — when we listen to music we are constantly making predictions about the sounds we will hear next in a song or the direction the music will take us. This is exactly what we do when we dance.

Zatorre and Valorie Salimpoor also recently used brain scans to show people’s brains react when they hear a new song they love. The study, published in the journal Science in April, found that music engages reward-related circuits in our brain.

This is where an ancient part of the brain called the nucleus accumbens comes in. If the music we hear meets or surpasses our expectations, the nucleus accumbens will release dopamine, a feel-good chemical that’s generally associated with rewards like the feelings we get from good food, great sex, or drugs.  

Another ancient part of the brain called the amygdala and the much newer medial prefrontal cortex process our emotional response to music. If a song depresses you or makes you bounce around the room, the amygdala deserves some of the blame.

The researchers aren’t sure which order each of these areas activate, but they know that activity in the nucleus accumbens can predict whether someone will like a new piece of music.

Music is abstract — we value it in different ways than we value food or a glass of water. It is the medial prefrontal cortex give us the ability to determine the value in what we are hearing, and it makes us unique among all animals.

“It is interesting to think that while animals get these ‘rewards’ from things like eating and sex… humans get them form abstract or aesthetic pleasures like art, poetry or music, that as far as we know don’t have any survival value,” Salimpoor told Business Insider.

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