We might be hard-wired to enjoy music’s intangibles

Musical endorphins?(Photo: Petr Kratochvil)
Musical endorphins?(Photo: Petr Kratochvil)

Most of us experience the physical pleasure of good food on a regular basis.  Whether it’s a rich cup of coffee, Swiss chocolate, spicy stir fry, or maybe some familiar “comfort food” such as mashed potatoes or meat loaf, the pleasures of well-made food are many.  

The hungrier we are, the more anticipation there is and often, the more pleasurable eating becomes.  Many senses come into play, sight, smell, texture, taste, but why do we enjoy something as abstract as music?

A team of scientists in Canada has been studying the human brain’s reaction to music being heard for the first time.  They have locked on to an area near your septum known as the nucleus accumbens.  Apparently, it plays a large role in many aspects of our emotional responses such as reward, pleasure, laughter, addiction, aggression, fear and even the placebo effect.

Scientists are curious about our reactions to something intangible such as music.  They expected to see reactions in response to foods, physical stimuli, and emotional situations, but were surprised to see similar responses when listeners heard a piece of music for the first time. Scientists were able to predict what music would be preferred before the study participants responded in any way.

According to an article from the BBC, researchers now want to find out how this drives our music tastes, and whether our brain activity can explain why people are drawn to different styles of music.

A recent weekend of incredible musical offerings from ProMusica Chamber Orchestra and the Columbus Symphony Orchestra and Chorus could have provided a great testing ground.  I found myself eagerly awaiting the premiere of Dreamsongs for Solo Cello and Chamber Orchestra, a new concerto for cello and orchestra written by Aaron Jay Kernis for “the generous and virtuosic playing” of cellist Joshua Roman and ProMusica Chamber Orchestra, marking Timothy Russell’s 34-years as ProMusica’s Music Director.  

In that same concert was one of my favorite Beethoven symphonies, his seventh. Following that concert, it was a short walk from the Southern Theatre to the Ohio Theatre to hear Of Songs and Singing, written by Stephen Paulus in honor of the 30th anniversary of Ronald Jenkins as conductor of the CSO Chorus.  The anticipation of the known and the unknown made for a wonderful weekend of delightful listening.

How long before we just plug something into our head and wait for iTunes to tell us what we want, or conjuring up music to fit our mood based, not on past listening habits, but our brain waves?  For me, while scientists may eventually unravel some of these mysteries, I prefer to find my seat in the Southern or the Ohio Theatre, listen to what Kernis or Paulus have written, and wait for my nucleus accumbens to light up.

Read more: New Music Rewarding for the Brain (BBC World Service)

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