On music and pleasure

The people who slowly filtered into room W201 for an afternoon seminar on music and the brain couldn’t help but notice the noise of construction that intermittently interrupted conversation. For some, the sound of power tools would be enough to drive them away, but the group of cognitive neuroscientists who had gathered seemed to take it in stride. “Maybe we’re part of a social experiment,” a few of them offered. The talk of possible experiments continued as the seminar was moved to a quieter and smaller room. Do people ask more questions in a small room than in a large room? (The consensus hypothesis seemed to be that the intimacy of a small room would make people feel more comfortable about asking questions.) The real experiments under discussion, however, had nothing to do with room size but were all about how and why people experience pleasure when they listen to music.

As Valorie Salimpoor, a PhD student working with Dr Robert Zatorre, explained, why we listen to music at all is a mystery. What is it about a sequence of tones that brings us pleasure? It is not like other “pleasure-producing stimuli.” It has no biological value (like food, for example), it comes with no tangible rewards, and, despite the existence of self-professed music junkies, listening to music is not known to be addictive. So what does listening to music do to us?

Salimpoor set out to test the idea that listening to music gives us pleasure by affecting our emotions. The problem with studying emotional response is that emotions are subjective. Salimpoor needed an objective measurement of pleasure in order to study the effects of music so she looked at changes in people’s autonomic nervous systems, such as changes in body temperature and heart rate, while they were listening to music that they enjoyed. Volunteers for the study were chosen if they experienced pleasurable chills in response to a piece of instrumental music. Not everyone is lucky enough to get chills when they listen to music, but those who do associate them with feeling intense pleasure brought on by the music. And chills have the benefit of being accompanied by typical changes in physiological arousal.

The music used in the study was self-selected by the study participants and Salimpoor played examples, ranging from house to classical. “Who gets pleasure from this?” she asked her audience. People raised their hands according to their preferences. To a casual observer, there seemed to be a high correlation between the style of music that gave pleasure and the age of the listener.

In the experiment, those who found a piece of music pleasurable had signs of emotional arousal as measured by the changes in the autonomic nervous system. In a further study, Salimpoor and her colleagues also found that music activates the dopamine reward circuit, which is involved in the brain’s response to other things that give us pleasure, and is also implicated in addictive behaviour.

Composers, though they may not have needed the results to prove that music gives pleasure, were quick to look for practical applications. Several contacted Salimpoor to ask what kind of music gave people chills. Although the musical styles ranged greatly from person to person in the study, a few pieces of music, and a few composers, showed up more than once. And, said Salimpoor, at least once piece of music, Barber’s Adagio for Strings, appeared to transcend musical styles, showing up both in its original form, and in various remixes.

Seminar over, Salimpoor was peppered with questions, confirming, or at least supporting, the small-room hypothesis.

Further reading
The Rewarding Aspects of Music Listening Are Related to Degree of Emotional Arousal

posted by Maria Schamis Turner @ 9:51 AM   1 Comments


At October 28, 2010 at 1:48 PM , Blogger Sarah Gilbert said...

Oh, the complexity of (measuring) subjective emotional responses!
An intriguing and deftly-drawn scenario for your first installment. I love the small room hypothesis.


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