Coachella: Neuroscientists Explain Why Music Feels Like a Drug

"We cannot conclude that there is a pill that will increase your musical pleasure."

When you spend time with someone you love, eat your favorite food, or listen to your favorite music, your brain releases the neurotransmitter dopamine, and you feel good. Its effect on music recently caught the attention of scientists, right in time for music festival season: Studying the relationship between music and dopamine, they established for the first time that rising brain dopamine levels actually change the way people enjoy music.

In a paper published Monday in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a team of researchers found that by artificially raising or lowering dopamine levels in a person’s brain, they could increase and decrease how much the person enjoyed the music they were listening to. The team, led by Laura Ferreri, Ph.D., argues that this paper provides the first solid evidence that dopamine levels in the brain affect how much a person enjoys a piece of music.

“This study shows for the first time a causal role of dopamine in musical pleasure and motivation: enjoying a piece of music, deriving pleasure from it, wanting to listen to it again, being willing to spend money for it, strongly depend on the dopamine released in our synapses,” Ferreri, a member of Lyon University’s Laboratory Study of Cognitive Mechanisms in France, tells Inverse.

Laura Ferreri says you don't need drugs to release dopamine. Music provides all the stimulation you need.

Unsplash / David Calderón

With her team, Ferreri, who also worked with the Cognition and Brain Plasticity Group at the University of Barcelona and the Bellvitge Biomedical Research Institute, reached this conclusion after giving volunteers drugs, having them listen to music, and then asking them to report how pleasurable the experience was.

They weren’t taking the usual concert-goer’s drugs, though. Each of the 27 volunteers took levodopa (a Parkinson’s drug that helps boost dopamine levels in the brain), risperidone (an antipsychotic drug that blocks the action of dopamine in the brain), or lactose (a placebo) over the course of three different sessions. In each session, they listened to five snippets of their favorite songs as well as some pop songs selected by the experimenters, which included Katy Perry, One Direction, and Taylor Swift.

A clear pattern emerged as the the volunteers reported how pleasurable their experiences were and how willing they were to pay for the pop songs. Those with artificially increased dopamine levels enjoyed the music more, and those with decreased levels enjoyed the music less. The study builds on previous work by Ferreri’s co-authors, like a 2018 study in Nature Human Behaviour, which showed that stimulating the brain with transcranial magnetic stimulation could increase people’s enjoyment of music. Taken together, the studies confirm that the dopamine reward system in the brain is engaged in the experience of musical pleasure.

The best chemical enhancement for a concert is already in your brain, say scientists.

Unsplash / Jyotirmoy Gupta

Ferreri cautions that this study does not offer advice on a new way to get high at a music festival. Taking levodopa at Coachella, for instance, will probably make you nauseous, not enhance your enjoyment of Aphex Twin. In addition to the well-known long-term risks associated with taking levodopa — motor impairment and addictive behavior, just to name a couple — Ferreri notes that the new study shows it’s totally unnecessary, as “a normal functioning system is perfectly capable of increasing dopamine release and pleasure feelings by itself.”

For Ferreri, the much more fascinating question is how and why the brain reinforces musical enjoyment, an experience that doesn’t seem to have any evolutionary survival advantage. She says this line of inquiry offers unique insights into the neurological roots of the human experience.

“Understanding how the brain translates a structured sequence of sounds, such as music, into a pleasant and rewarding experience is thus a challenging and fascinating question,” she says.

So instead of looking for the right drugs to take at a concert or music festival, the best way to ensure you’ll have a good time is to go listen to music you genuinely enjoy. It’s as simple as that.

“We cannot conclude that there is a pill that will increase your musical pleasure,” says Ferreri. “What we can say is much more interesting: listening to the music you love will make your brain release more dopamine, a crucial neurotransmitter for humans’ emotional and cognitive functioning.”

Abstract: Understanding how the brain translates a structured sequence of sounds, such as music, into a pleasant and rewarding experience is a fascinating question which may be crucial to better understand the processing of abstract rewards in humans. Previous neuroimaging findings point to a challenging role of the dopaminergic system in music-evoked pleasure. However, there is a lack of direct evidence showing that dopamine function is causally related to the pleasure we experience from music. We addressed this problem through a double blind within-subject pharmacological design in which we directly manipulated dopaminergic synaptic availability while healthy participants (n = 27) were engaged in music listening. We orally administrated to each participant a dopamine precursor (levodopa), a dopamine antagonist (risperidone), and a placebo (lactose) in three different sessions. We demonstrate that levodopa and risperidone led to opposite effects in measures of musical pleasure and motivation: while the dopamine precursor levodopa, compared with placebo, increased the hedonic experience and music-related motivational responses, risperidone led to a reduction of both. This study shows a causal role of dopamine in musical pleasure and indicates that dopaminergic transmission might play different or additive roles than the ones postulated in affective processing so far, particularly in abstract cognitive activities.

Correction 1/23/19: This article previously referred to Dr. Laura Ferreri as French, while she is in fact Italian. The article has been updated to reflect this information.

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