The most basic human instincts to eat and procreate are actually behaviors enforced by a neurochemical reward system hard-wired into our brains. Because we never do something for nothing, our brains have evolved to release a chemical called dopamine—a neurotransmitter—as a reward. Unlike sustenance and reproduction, music has no obvious evolutionary advantage, yet it activates dopamine release in much the same way.
Dopamine is what tells our body that it has been rewarded. dopamine release in the pleasure center of our brain—the nucleus accumbens—is responsible for those feelings of pleasure and satisfaction that keep us asking for more. So when we listen to a song for the very first time, dopamine may be released at certain aurally attractive moments telling us that we like what we’re hearing. So, for some reason, our brains are rewarding us for listening to music.
Dopamine release also occurs in the caudate nucleus, which plays an important role in learning stimulus-reward associations, allowing us to predict when a reward is coming. The more we listen to a particular song, the better we can anticipate when the emotional payoffs will occur. We begin tuning into the sequences of tones and rhythms that lead us to that dopaminergic climax. It is this anticipation—this neurochemical reinforcement—that builds our desire to listen to that song. That makes us feel like we *need* to hear it.
But what is it about music that taps into this adaptive reward-based-learning neural network? The archaeological record suggests that music has been with humans forever, which is not particularly surprising given that animals like birds and whales use song to communicate.* Music that really resonates with us has this natural ability to evoke and even enhance our emotions. Perhaps music has the power to somehow manipulate our neural circuitry, using discordance // resolution, prediction // surprise, anticipation // delay to make our brain think it’s actually experiencing some physical—as opposed to aesthetic + abstract—phenomenon.
The most affective music may in some way be reflecting patterns found in nature, appealing to some instinctual response in us. Or it may mimic the rhythm of some past resonant interaction that has been pre-programmed into our brains, reactivating the experience by going through the dopaminergic motions. Or it may even break with established patterns, toying with our brains by building up to nothing or delaying the delivery of that much-expected, long-awaited hook.
Interestingly, scientists have found that pop songs have become far less dynamic over the last 50 years. Perhaps the likes of Justin Bieber and Carly Rae Jepsen [or the engineers behind their contagious beats] have finally found *the* secret to co-opting our neural circuitry with their viral hits, ushering pop music-making into an almost scientific era. As mass-music-production has become the industry standard, these engineers may have discovered some near-universal [haters gon’ hate] motif that has allowed them to distill pop music-making into a very precise formula designed to appeal to the masses—a sort of unified theory of pop-music synthesis.
Thousands of years of musical evolution culminating in ‘Call Me Maybe’. For better or worse? Let your doped up [or not] brain be the judge.
*Male humpback whales use song to herd fish for feeding and birds use song in courtship rituals. song for food + sex. Whether our brain’s relationship to music can be traced back to our distant animal cousins is unclear to me, however.