One of the most extraordinary aspects of music is its capacity to trigger emotional responses on us, humans. The feeling of listening to a beautiful song is indescribable.

Moreover, we seek to engage during the act of listening to music. So we sing along, we dance and often, without hindrance, we open our arms and feel chills and goosebumps.

Also when we find a song that we truly appreciate, we often play it on “repeat”. So we listen to the same stimulus (song) over and over. And why do we do such behavior?

Because, without perhaps being aware of it, what we are truly seeking is to trigger the exact same chemical reaction in our brains that makes us feel those emotions again, and again and again.

The reason why we feel and seek such reactions is due to a neurotransmitter named dopamine. Dopamine is one of the neurotransmitters (together with serotonin, oxytocin and endorphin) that gives us the feeling of pleasure. For us humans, it is of pivotal importance for an overall “feeling of happiness”.

Dopamine is released in our brains as a reward mechanism to behaviors that are relevant for biological and evolutionary purposes, such as eating, exercise, meditation and having sex. Thus, it is extremely important for humans and the lack of it is associated with conditions such as depression.

But how can listening to music be a reward mechanism if it has little connection with evolutionary forces? In other words, why would our brains translate sounds we hear into pleasant rewarding experiences?

This is a mystery that science wishes to answer.


Dopamine and Music

In this article I would like to highlight 15 publications relating to Dopamine and music listening behavior.

The studies listed below are extremely interesting and helps to clarify the direct link between music and dopamine release. The studies suggest, for example, that songs that elicit a sense of pleasure are most responsible for greatest dopamine release.

Given the fantastic feeling it provides, our normal reaction afterwards is to simply “press play” again and experience the exact same sensation.

Exactly like a drug-addict would do, seeking pleasure.

However, a high exposure to a same song may lead to a “desensitization“. As consequence our brains become incapable of generating the exact same dopamine level as previously by the same stimulus. In this case, the exposure to the same song.

And this is why listening to the exact same song is only pleasurable for a while. Afterwards it can become even a burden. This is why “rediscovering” a song can be a very pleasant experience. In these moments what happens is that the lack of exposure makes us “regain” the sensitivity to the stimulus.

So all of the sudden we hear the song once more and it is capable of triggering our long-term memory and eliciting memories. But also of releasing similar or close to similar dopamine levels as to when you first heard the song.

Therefore it feels good to listen to a favorite song after a long time without being exposed to it.


List of Selected Publications

So here are the list of 15 selected publications discussing the link between music listening behavior and dopamine. Please note: this is not a definite list.

It is simply a compilation that I have developed based on personal curiosity on the topic. I have listed them in descendant order of years,

Here we go!

  1. Ferreri, L., Mas-Herrero, E., Zatorre, R. J., Ripollés, P., Gomez-Andres, A., Alicart, H., … & Riba, J. (2019). Dopamine modulates the reward experiences elicited by music. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 116(9), 3793-3798.
  2. Gold, B. P., Pearce, M. T., Mas-Herrero, E., Dagher, A., & Zatorre, R. J. (2019). Predictability and uncertainty in the pleasure of music: a reward for learning?. Journal of Neuroscience, 0428-19.
  3. Altenmüller, E., & Schlaug, G. (2015). Apollo’s gift: new aspects of neurologic music therapy. In Progress in brain research (Vol. 217, pp. 237-252). Elsevier.
  4. Salimpoor, V. N., Zald, D. H., Zatorre, R. J., Dagher, A., & McIntosh, A. R. (2015). Predictions and the brain: how musical sounds become rewarding. Trends in cognitive sciences, 19(2), 86-91.
  5. Gold, B. (2014). Musical pleasure mediates dopaminergic learning: an fMRI study.
  6. Stegemöller, E. L. (2014). Exploring a neuroplasticity model of music therapy. Journal of Music Therapy, 51(3), 211-227.
  7. Chanda, M. L., & Levitin, D. J. (2013). The neurochemistry of music. Trends in cognitive sciences, 17(4), 179-193.
  8. Salimpoor, V. N., & Zatorre, R. J. (2013). Neural interactions that give rise to musical pleasure. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, 7(1), 62.
  9. Salimpoor, V. N., van den Bosch, I., Kovacevic, N., McIntosh, A. R., Dagher, A., & Zatorre, R. J. (2013). Interactions between the nucleus accumbens and auditory cortices predict music reward value. Science, 340(6129), 216-219.
  10. Zatorre, R. J., & Salimpoor, V. N. (2013). From perception to pleasure: music and its neural substrates. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 110(Supplement 2), 10430-10437.
  11. Gebauer, L., Kringelbach, M. L., & Vuust, P. (2012). Ever-changing cycles of musical pleasure: The role of dopamine and anticipation. Psychomusicology: Music, Mind, and Brain, 22(2), 152.
  12. Polston, J. E., Rubbinaccio, H. Y., Morra, J. T., Sell, E. M., & Glick, S. D. (2011). Music and methamphetamine: conditioned cue-induced increases in locomotor activity and dopamine release in rats. Pharmacology Biochemistry and Behavior, 98(1), 54-61.
  13. Salimpoor, V. N., Benovoy, M., Larcher, K., Dagher, A., & Zatorre, R. J. (2011). Anatomically distinct dopamine release during anticipation and experience of peak emotion to music. Nature neuroscience, 14(2), 257.
  14. Salimpoor, V. N., Benovoy, M., Longo, G., Cooperstock, J. R., & Zatorre, R. J. (2009). The rewarding aspects of music listening are related to degree of emotional arousal. PloS one, 4(10), e7487.
  15. Menon, V., & Levitin, D. J. (2005). The rewards of music listening: response and physiological connectivity of the mesolimbic system. Neuroimage, 28(1), 175-184.

Final Thoughts

So next time you hear a beautiful song and feel emotional, with goosebumps or chills, remember: there is an entire chemical reaction happening in your brain which is releasing neurotransmitters that makes you feel good.

And as a specie that seeks pleasure, we repeat behaviors. So there is a great chance you will press “play” again to it, right?

So enjoy it, let yourself sing along, feel those emotions and the musical chills.

Music is a wonderful experience.

Ph.D in Marketing (University of Otago, New Zealand). Currently a Professor of Marketing at IUBH University of Applied Sciences (Germany). Passionate about everything that involves Music, Marketing, Science, Technology, Research, Traveling, Coffee, Beer, Football and Formula 1.