“What a tuuune!” – A Scientifically Good Song

It’s a Saturday night, you are about to hit the town. There are many things that can affect how good the impending night out is going to be, the quality of the company, amount of alcohol consumed, making it home with all your possessions. The music also obviously plays a key part in the night and scientists have proved that certain songs can create feelings of euphoria and an almost drug like high, observable in the brain. So what music is scientifically likely to result in a great night out and what is the science behind it?

Dr Valorie Salimpoor and her team based in Canada have done several studies into the effects of music on the brain, she says, “Music has no functional resemblance to other rewarding stimuli, and has no demonstrated biological value, yet individuals continue listening to music for pleasure”. Her latest findings published in Nature indicate that music can create euphoria and craving, similar to “rewards that involve the striatal dopaminergic system”, a system that plays a big role in the feeling of being ‘high’ and drug addiction.

They discovered this by using positron emission tomography (PET) scanning and measuring the activity of the autonomic nervous system. One key factor of a party was taken into account in the study, variations in music taste (note: this may not be a controllable variable on your night out!) with each participant being played genres of music they enjoyed and those that they found neutral.

Although, they were able to study the levels of dopamine released using markers, the feeling of euphoria is quite subjective. So to attempt to circum navigate this they also looked at the physiological feeling of getting a “chill” when listening to a song.

They observed a “temporal dissociation between distinct regions of the striatum” while subjects were listening music they described as pleasurable. They also observed peaks of ANS activity that indicates that the most intense reactions to music are cause by dopamine release in the NAcc, a region has been implicated in effects of such as cocaine.

Another phenomena observed was that before the peak of emotional responses to the music there was greater dopamine activity in the caudate. The causdate region of the striatum plays an important role in memory and stimulus-response associations, potentially indicating that this may be the cause of the associations of particular emotions, feelings and moments with songs.

A) PET scans showing the areas of dopamine release in each state, B) Hemodynamic responses and dopamine activity in the caudate region, C) PET data showing dopamine at different points in the songs

So what songs are likely to cause these kind of effects? Well another study by the same research group came out with a list of instrumental songs most likely to cause the ‘chill factor’ according to their observations.  They asked their participants to select 3-5 songs which caused the chill factor for them. They were not allowed to pick songs that they had an emotional connection to (e.g. “Aww this our song!”) or songs from films (unless they hadnt seen the film), this was to try to reduce any prior associations with the song. The songs ranged from  from classical to jazz. They were then played songs selected by others and both asked to rank the pleasure they gained from them and were fitted with monitors to record heart rate, BVP amplitude, respiration rate, electrodermal activity and body temperature. The study found that there is a direct link between emotions and music due to an observed relationship between increased levels of emotions and self-reported increases in pleasure. The following are a few songs that brought about these reactions that might be suitable for a night out:

Tiesto – Adagion for Strings

Infected Mushroom – Viscious Delicious

Darude  – Sandstorm


Salimpoor VN, Benovoy M, Longo G, Cooperstock JR, & Zatorre RJ (2009). The rewarding aspects of music listening are related to degree of emotional arousal. PloS one, 4 (10) PMID: 19834599

Salimpoor VN, Benovoy M, Larcher K, Dagher A, & Zatorre RJ (2011). Anatomically distinct dopamine release during anticipation and experience of peak emotion to music. Nature neuroscience, 14 (2), 257-62 PMID: 21217764

11 thoughts on ““What a tuuune!” – A Scientifically Good Song

  1. Interesting. Without having read the studies, I’d guess that the test subjects were Uni students – for some reason I just can’t picture a random sample of the population throwing up Darude and Tiesto. I wonder how the music choices would differ across age, class and social group? Would the actual ‘qualities’ of the music (instruments, style etc) eliciting the physiological responses be different?

    • Yeah they were, rounded up from campus, they got almost 300 people to select the music and then tested about 20 guys and 20 girls. Definitely a lot more research that could be done, having read all this threw up a lot more questions than answers! You missed out on a fun night last night btw.

  2. The second one gave me an error saying it wasn’t available in my country (USA). The other two were electronica.

    That’s whopping diversification of exactly one (1) genre of music.
    No classical, no jazz, no folk, no rock, no world music, and on and on.
    And what was the cutural diversification of the subjects in the study? How did you control for enculturation to certain types of music?
    I suggest they return the wasted funds of their study.
    Better luck next time. It’s a great idea, but there’s real hurdles to constructing the study that it seems were not sufficiently handled.
    You would need a world wide sample. You would need musics from all styles. You would need people of all age ranges from every cultural background. All this just to establish baselines and set up controls.
    Neither of the selections I heard did anything for me. I am not against electronica, but it takes something more than a house beat and some fake string patches to get to me.

    • They did look at several other types of music in the study I probably should have made that clearer, have now updated it a bit to indicate that. They had songs like Debussy’s Claire De Lune and some other really good pieces of classical music. The reason I focussed on the electro/techno was that I wanted to take the slant of whether you could use the findings to pick a scientifically good song for a night out. So whilst I like a good classical piece it didn’t really fit with the angle I wanted to take.

      I agree that the study has its holes, but thats always going to happen when you apply scientific reasoning to something as subjective as how music affects people. But, I do think that the information about the role of caudate and dopamine makes the research worthwhile.

      The major area I didn’t go into is the effect of vocals, there has been some really interesting studies into the effects that male and female choirs have on people, I would recommend looking at the research of Prof David Howard theres a video of his study here, but afraid might not be available in the US.

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