Discovering New Music

From the soulful serenades of Marvin Gaye to the thrashing metal of Slayer, something happens to us when we listen to music we love. It’s a visceral experience that can take us over completely. 

Research shows that listening to new music for the first time stimulates the brain’s reward center to the point that scientists can tell whether or not you’ll buy it. The stronger the response from the sensory, emotional, and executive parts of the brain, the more likely you are to whip out your wallet.

Not that you need science to tell you why you love music, but here’s some anyway.

Your Brain on the Black Keys

A new study published in the journal Science reports that activity in the nucleus accumbens—the brain’s reward center—can help predict how much you’re willing to pay for new music.

Previous research has shown that listening to music we like stimulates the production of dopamine, one of the brain’s feel-good chemicals, which guides biological imperatives like eating and sex. 

While it’s still not fully understood, we know that dopamine plays an important role in pleasure, emotion, and addiction. Because the right music can stimulate dopamine production, music therapy is one type of complementary therapy used to treat people with depression.

Researchers from McGill University in Montreal hooked up 19 participants to a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine, a kind of brain scanner that allows doctors to see brain activity in real time. Participants then listened to excerpts from 60 songs and were asked how much of their own money they’d be willing to spend to buy each song. 

Music used in the study ranged from “Terrible Things” by April Smith and the Great Picture Show to “Beat the Devil’s Tattoo” by the Black Rebel Motorcycle Club. 

When a person was willing to pay as much as $2 for a song, researchers noticed activity in large portions of the brain associated with auditory processing, emotions, and value-guided decision-making.

Researchers found that the more a person was willing to pay for a song, the more their brain’s reward center was stimulated, including areas that store information about music we’ve heard in the past. 

The combination of the two makes our music tastes that much more personal. 

“In other words,” researchers wrote, “how various parts of the brain react to music depends on the kinds of music we are exposed to throughout our lives, and thus is a highly individual response.”

This could come in handy next time you’re trying to explain exactly why you prefer The Rolling Stones over The Beatles.

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