Sounds to Live By

Music isn’t essential for our survival. You won’t die if you go without listening for a week and it’s not necessary for procreation.

So why does your brain crave music?

In a 2013 issue of Science, neuroscientists reported that music triggers activity in the nucleus accumbens, the same brain structure that releases dopamine, the “pleasure chemical,” during sex and eating. Animals get that same thrill from food and sex, but not, despite the occasional dancing cockatoo, from music.

Music and neuroscience are no strangers to one another. For decades, scientists have been trying to find the link between our brains and the stimulus that music provides.

In 2013, research led by Valorie Salimpoor threw some more light on the subject. Salimpoor initiated the research because she was once so overwhelmed by hearing Johannes Brahms’ “Hungarian Dance” in the car that she was forced to pull over. So she started trying to figure out why. She gathered a group of 19 volunteers, who were asked to listen to short samples of 60 songs they’d never heard before. They were then asked to bid a small amount of money for each track — up to a maximum of $2 (with their own money). While they listened, the brains of the participants were scanned using an MRI.

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