The Chemistry of Music

The Chemistry of Music

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As you may have noticed, the articles I am sharing with Masters of Health Magazine are all centered on music and how it enriches our lives. This article, that I will be quoting extensively from, is very interesting and shows a measurable chemical response that our body can have to music. I believe it is one of many pieces of information that continue to show us how important music is to our health. I hope you are enjoying these articles – and please feel free to send along any articles pertaining to this subject that you may find to my e-mail address: steve@calmingharp.com

The article I am referring to is titled, “Music ‘Releases Mood-Enhancing Chemical in the Brain”, and was written by Sonya McGilchrist | Health reporter, BBC News - 9 January 2011

The research involved working with a group of volunteers who were willing to have their brains scanned under different conditions with PET and MRI imaging. The concept was to see if there were any changes that could be observed under various conditions. One of the parameters was if there were any changes that occurred while music was being listened to.

The study involved scanning the brains of eight volunteers over three sessions, using two different types of scan. “It showed that music is inextricably linked with our deepest reward systems,” stated  Dr Vicky Williamson, Goldsmiths College, University of London.

The relatively small sample had been narrowed down from an initial group of 217 people. This was because the participants had to experience “chills” consistently, to the same piece of music, without diminishing on multiple listening or in different environments. A type of nuclear medicine imaging called a PET scan was used for two sessions. For one session, volunteers listened to music that they highly enjoyed and during the other, they listened to music that they were neutral about. In the third session the music alternated between enjoyed and neutral, while a functional magnetic resonance imaging or fMRI scan was made. Data gathered from the two different types of scans was then analysed and researchers were able to estimate dopamine release. Dopamine transmission was higher when the participants were listening to music they enjoyed.

There were some surprising results from this study. Music releases a chemical in the brain that has a key role in setting good moods, the study has suggested. The study, reported in Nature Neuroscience, found that the chemical was released at moments of peak enjoyment.

Researchers from McGill University in Montreal said it was the first time that the chemical – called dopamine – had been tested in response to music. Dopamine increases in response to other stimuli such as food and money. It is known to produce a feel-good state in response to certain tangible stimulants – from eating sweets to taking cocaine. Dopamine is also associated with less tangible stimuli – such as being in love.

In this study, levels of dopamine were found to be up to 9% higher when volunteers were listening to music they enjoyed. The report authors say it’s significant in proving that humans obtain pleasure from music – an abstract reward – that is comparable with the pleasure obtained from more basic biological stimuli. Music psychologist, Dr Vicky Williamson from Goldsmiths College, University of London welcomed the paper. She said the research didn’t answer why music was so important to humans – but proved that it was.

A key element of the study was to measure the release of dopamine, when the participants were feeling their highest emotional response to the music. To achieve this, researchers marked when participants felt a shiver down the spine of the sort that many people feel in response to a favorite piece of music. This “chill” or “musical frisson” pinpointed when the volunteers were feeling maximum pleasure. The scans showed increased endogenous dopamine transmission when the participants felt a “chill”. Conversely, when they were listening to music which did not produce a “chill”, less dopamine was released.

Dopamine is a common neurotransmitter in the brain. It is released in response to rewarding human activity and is linked to reinforcement and motivation – these include activities that are biologically significant such as eating and sex. Dr Robert Zatorre said: “We needed to be sure that we could find people who experienced chills very consistently and reliably. “That is because once we put them in the scanner, if they did not get chills then we would have nothing to measure. “The other factor that was important is that we wanted to eliminate any potential confound from verbal associations, so we used only instrumental music. “This also eliminated many of the original sample of people because the music they brought in that gave them chills had lyrics.”

This paper shows that music is inextricably linked with our deepest reward systems.  Even if we don’t understand the exact mechanisms we do observe the positive effects and therefore the value of listening to enjoyable music. Even though the conditions of this study were fairly selective in order to be able to accurately measure the levels of dopamine, it can be extrapolated that these effects would be present in other individuals to a greater or lesser degree even if not measurable.

An abstract in PubMed.gov – May 6, 2004 indicated that since music can boost dopamine levels, listening to music has even been shown to help people with Parkinson’s disease improve their fine motor control.

Music may not be able to cure all our ills, but it certainly has many benefits for our health and wellbeing. The more we observe and experiment, the more connections we find between music and its effects on our physiology. And besides, music is enjoyable both to create and to listen to. It is an essential element to our fabric of life.