“People worry about kids playing with guns, and teenagers watching violent videos; we are scared that some sort of culture of violence will take them over. Nobody worries about kids listening to thousands - literally thousands - of songs about broken hearts and rejection and pain and misery and loss.”—Nick Hornby (High Fidelity)
Why does music make us feel? On the one hand, music is a purely abstract art form, devoid of language or explicit ideas. The stories it tells are all subtlety and subtext. And yet, even though music says little, it still manages to touch us deep, to tickle some universal nerves. When listening to our favorite songs, our body betrays all the symptoms of emotional arousal. The pupils in our eyes dilate, our pulse and blood pressure rise, the electrical conductance of our skin is lowered, and the cerebellum, a brain region associated with bodily movement, becomes strangely active. Blood is even re-directed to the muscles in our legs. (Some speculate that this is why we begin tapping our feet.) In other words, sound stirs us at our biological roots. As Schopenhauer wrote, “It is we ourselves who are tortured by the strings.”
We can now begin to understand where these feelings come from, why a mass of vibrating air hurtling through space can trigger such intense states of excitement. A brand new paper in Nature Neuroscience by a team of Montreal researchers marks an important step in revealing the precise underpinnings of “the potent pleasurable stimulus” that is music. Although the study involves plenty of fancy technology, including fMRI and ligand-based positron emission tomography (PET) scanning, the experiment itself was rather straightforward. After screening 217 individuals who responded to advertisements requesting people that experience “chills to instrumental music,” the scientists narrowed down the subject pool to ten. (These were the lucky few who most reliably got chills.) The scientists then asked the subjects to bring in their playlist of favorite songs – virtually every genre was represented, from techno to tango – and played them the music while their brain activity was monitored.
Because the scientists were combining methodologies (PET and fMRI) they were able to obtain an impressively precise portrait of music in the brain. The first thing they discovered (using ligand-based PET) is that music triggers the release of dopamine in both the dorsal and ventral striatum. This isn’t particularly surprising: these regions have long been associated with the response to pleasurable stimuli. It doesn’t matter if we’re having sex or snorting cocaine or listening to Kanye: These things fill us with bliss because they tickle these cells. Happiness begins here.
The more interesting finding emerged from a close study of the timing of this response, as the scientists looked to see what was happening in the seconds before the subjects got the chills…
I’m bored out my mind Too sick to even care I’ll take a little walk Nobody’s going to know I’m in senior year It gives you a little free time I’ll just use it all at once!
Took the fence and the lane The bus then the train Bought an ‘Independent’ to make me look like I got brains I made a story up in my head if anybody would ask I’m going to a seminar!
I’m a genius A prodigy A demon at Maths and Science I’m up for a prize If you gotta grow up sometime You’ve to do it on your own I don’t think I could stand to be stuck That’s the way that things were going
The bible’s my tool There’s no mention of school! My Damascan Road’s my transistor radio I tune in at night when my mum and my dad start to fight I put on my headphones And I tune out I am devout The girls are singing about my life But they’re not here, they’ve got the wild life
If you want to find out, find out You got to look them in the eye That’s why my only choice Is find the face behind the voice?
She asked the man if the service was open ‘Not today, just the choir from the radio’ ‘Couldn’t I sit in? I’ve come all this way’ ‘Will you bugger off, I’ve got work to do.’
The city was losing its appeal God was asleep He was back in her village, in the fields
‘Oh, if I could make sense of it all! I wish that I could sing I’d stay in a melody I would float along in my everlasting song What would I do to believe?’