This Is Your Brain on Music

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"One thing about music: when it hits, you feel no pain."

This is a Bob Marley lyric from "Trenchtown Rock" that has always resonated with me, as deeply affected as I am by all different kinds of music.

Now researchers at McGill University in Montreal are confirming what I believe Bob intuitively knew and what music therapists could probably tell you too. Music can make us feel -- chemically, biologically -- better.

Whether it's the Beatles or Beethoven, people like music for the same reason they like eating or having sex: It makes the brain release a chemical that gives pleasure, a study says. The brain substance is involved both in anticipating a particularly thrilling musical moment and in feeling the rush from it, researchers found.

Researchers had eight volunteers listen to music that reliably gave them chills, which I'm guessing is to say they enjoyed it, while PET scans concurrently tracked dopamine in their brains. The chemical surged in one part of the striatum (that's part of the forebrain, if you're as anatomically challenged as I am) during the 15 seconds before the listeners' favorite parts of songs, and a different part when they heard the highlight.

Cool, right? And apparently scientifically important. Dr. Gottfried Schlaug, an expert on music and the brain at Harvard Medical School, said the study was "remarkable" for its combination of techniques and its confirmation of music's ability to tap into the dopamine system.

So what does this mean? Well for me it means that when I forget to turn on iTunes for awhile while I'm working and then finally do, my brain suddenly seems to work better and my writing process usually smooths out. Or I can have a crappy day at work and then when I get in the car and turn up a favorite CD or playlist, I'm generally only one (loudly, poorly-sung) song in and my mood lifts.

This study would also seem to help to explain why favorite songs and albums stay favorites and why people often return to them time and time again. Whether it's the quality of the music itself or our association with favorite times and people is questionable, but there are generally reasons why my favorites are favorites.Here are some examples of songs that are instant mood-lifters for me:

  • Led Zeppelin, pretty much any song, but particularly "Hey Hey What Can I Do" and "Ramble On." They take me back to college and to fun like I'd never had before, but I still consider them perfect examples of rock music and that's what I usually choose to charge me up.
  • "Heavenly Day," Patty Griffin. I love Patty's music, but this song is gorgeous and life-affirming and I listen to it often. It makes a bad day tolerable and a good day better.
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  • The Beatles "White Album," Disc Two. I love everything about it and can listen to it incessantly, but admit a special fondness for "Ob-La-Di Ob-La-Da," not just because it's a perfect example of Lennon/McCartney whimsy and genius, but also because I used to dance to it with my dogs in the dining room when I was too broke to buy a table. You just never know what you'll look back on with a smile.
  • Glenn Miller's "In the Mood," the song I can still see my grandparents dancing to in my mind, which brings with it as much joy as it does any pain of missing them. Plus big band music is just groovy on its own.
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  • Speaking of the wondrous Bob Marley, "Redemption Song" is one of my favorite songs ever. Promise, light, whatever you need -- it's all there.

You probably have your musical moments too, the ones that shift your mood for the better, that make it possible to finish the treadmill time without totally hating life or are essential on road trips. Maybe it's "your song" or a family favorite, a song that defined a moment or a passage of music that lifts your spirit. This study only considers instrumental music, and doesn't take the impact of lyrics into account. It also doesn't explain why your dopamine may surge to, say, Celine Dion while Stevie Wonder or Led Zeppelin does it for me. That's okay. As far as chemical enhancers go, it's harmless and easy to find. I'll be paying attention to see how the results of studies like this are integrated into treatments for people who could use a dopamine lift.

Meanwhile I'll just remember to turn my favorite songs on -- and up -- when I could use a dopamine surge that doesn't require calorie intake or another person's presence.

What kind of music changes your brain for the better?

Contributing Editor Laurie White writes at LaurieWrites. Her photos are on Flickr.

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