Pleasure, Pain, and Playlists

Let me start by saying that Ian Dury and the Blockheads were really onto something back in the ‘70s with “Sex, drugs, rock and roll”.

Explosions in the Sky at Central Park Summerstage, June 30th, 2009. Photos courtesy of  Andrew Parks .

Explosions in the Sky at Central Park Summerstage, June 30th, 2009. Photos courtesy of Andrew Parks.

Despite Cupid's lovey dovey archery skills, February always seems to be the most brutally tormenting of winter months. As I find myself trudging into month number three of winter - a period of time where any day that the sun peeks out or the sidewalks have successfully been shoveled is a glorious one - I tend to lean toward the comforts of something that is always dependable: music. When my time spent walking outside in the cold has managed to break my spirit ever so slightly, I come out of the frigid air and into warmth wanting just a few things: the warmest socks I own, a piping hot beverage, as many blankets as I can feasibly attain, and comforting music loudly vibrating through the apartment. On the right days, no matter my mood and even sprawled on the bare wood floor, I can gently close my eyes and find my thoughts kindly melt away in the beautiful melodies of Explosions in the Sky. It serves as an excellent reminder that The Earth Is Not a Cold Dead Place.

Music, like many arts, is universally appreciated across human cultures and (quite obviously) is often used to evoke a variety of emotions. Motivation, focus, relaxation, and even to simply promote social interactions. The list could really go on, and on, and then on some more. While all of us can probably agree that music is important to us, our answers as to WHY may begin to enter the philosophical world of the abstract. Can biology help explain the personal significance of an art?

*Cue dramatic entrance of cognitive psychology and neuroscience*

“The concordance and opposition of sounds, their running away and catching each other, their growing up and dying, this is what our spirit perceives as beautiful."

- Edward Hanslick (The Beautiful in Music, 1954)

What makes pleasant music pleasing?

Dopamine. Photo courtesy of wikimedia,org.

Dopamine. Photo courtesy of wikimedia,org.

Turns out that listening to music activates the same neurochemical pathways involved with reward and pleasure. (Sex…drugs…you are getting it now, right?). Neurobiologists have more recently begun expanding on brain imaging techniques to identify specific areas that are activated during various musical experiences, including those rated to be positive in tone, sad, or neutral. It’s been reported that compared to neutral music, enjoyable music selections were associated with increased blood flow to brain regions critical for reward and reinforcement, including the nucleus accumbens, midbrain, thalamus, cerebellum, amongst some others. Our enjoyment of music also seems to be related to the anticipation of something good happening in addition to the actual reward, a mechanism in which the hormone dopamine is greatly involved. It’s well established that dopamine enhances the pleasurable effects associated with the use of drugs like cocaine and methamphetamines, but it also works with good music! [Check out this 2011 paper published in Nature.] The midbrain, despite its less-than-exciting anatomical name, is home to loads of naturally-produced opioids. These molecules impact how your body deals with pain. It’s even been observed that post-operation patients require less medication (even morphine) when allowed to recover in an environment where music is provided. The release of natural opioids in our brains serves as one biological explanation for the reason pain is eased.

Anatomy of the human brain  as depicted in  Henry Gray’s  Anatomy of the Human Body (Figure 715).

Anatomy of the human brain as depicted in Henry Gray’s Anatomy of the Human Body (Figure 715).

You don’t need to be a psychologist to understand that music certainly has an influence on a person’s mood, and to date there are two dominating theories being discussed as to where those feelings come from. People termed “cognitivists” believe that we’re able to identify the emotion being expressed in a piece of music, meaning we can recognize something happy/upbeat vs. something somber or sad, and our feelings simply mirror that which is represented. “Emotivists” believe that the music itself can actually induce a specific mood in the listener based on the characteristics of the song and musical structure (for example happy major chords vs. depressing minor chords). This second view is supported by the growing collection of findings showing that music can affect a person’s physiology. Heart rate, pulse, body temperature, and respiration have been seen to increase during fast-tempo, upbeat music. Drops in the prominent stress hormone cortisol as well as other aforementioned measures are seen during relaxing songs and calming sounds can even prevent the onset of stress-induced increases in blood pressure. These are all things that make total sense, but happen without us paying attention! Very sneaky, body.

“Maybe music, and all art in a way, manages to transcend mere perception precisely because it contacts our more primordial neurobiology."

(Music, the food of neuroscience? published in Nature, March 2005)

A lion's roar. [ warning ]. Photo courtesy of

A lion's roar. [warning]. Photo courtesy of

Okay, let’s briefly cross over into the world of evolutionary biology. One line of thought is that the brain is taking the music we hear and treating it like a signal related to survival, inducing associated adjustments in our physiology. For example, stimulating songs can cause a response in our brain that mimics what alarm calls or mating behavior would induce in many species in the wild. Relaxing music, on the other hand, may reflect soothing maternal sounds that are comforting through reduction of stress and reinforcement of safety. In short, it seems that even though listening to music isn't a modern matter of life or death, these types of sounds may be assessed as though they are by letting us know what type of action (or lack of) to take in that moment.

A lioness and her cubs. [ comfort ]. Fun fact: tigers can't purr. Photo courtesy of

A lioness and her cubs. [comfort]. Fun fact: tigers can't purr. Photo courtesy of

Why do we torment ourselves with sappy music when we’re already feeling sad?

Oh, those eerie and pain-filled minor chords. They lure me in every time I’m feeling less than exuberant, and I know I’m not alone. What’s weird is that people tend to fill their ears with lyrical tales of pain when they’re already down and out. Wouldn't it make more sense to turn off Adele and crank up Ace of Base instead?

“You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who had ever been alive.” – James Baldwin

While Baldwin mentions books, this directly translates to music as well. We find solace in knowing we’re not alone. Misery loves company! Behavioral surveys and psychology studies confirm we use beautifully solemn music to distract, sort and reflect on our issues, and often as an emotional catharsis. I think everyone can relate to this on some level. Somewhat counter-intuitively, emotionally “negative” music can also be pleasing in way that lifts our mood and motivates us. A collection of studies have identified that this may be possible through specific inhibition of regions of the brain involved in feeling displeasure. What this means is that somehow our brains just know that the negative emotions represented in the music we listen to exist in an artistic, or purely aesthetic, context. It’s called dissociation. It allows us to find beauty in music as art rather than feel sadness from the story it tells. Brains are pretty incredible and you can get more details here, here, and here.

Okay, so I get knocked down. But I get up again, because you’re never gonna keep me down.

The open road. Photo courtesy of

The open road. Photo courtesy of

Of course we don’t subject ourselves to anger and sadness with every Spotify playlist we build. Eventually we find it in ourselves to feel a little less heavy. I’ll admit that I rather consistently find myself swooning over the idea of traveling to beautiful places all over the world, but the getaway urge is only emphasized by the time we reach the end of the unforgiving winter season. My last Expedia search for flights had me landing in Reykjavik. However, glaciers, volcanoes and hot springs aside, I think we can all agree that there is something therapeutic about simply filling up your gas tank, rolling the windows down, and driving somewhere. Anywhere. And a road trip isn't a road trip without the perfect playlist (which should always include Sigur Rós for good measure).

The combination of driving and music is such a common one that I actually found peer-reviewed scientific articles on the subject. Listening to self-selected music in high-traffic, congested driving conditions reduces stress levels and breathing rate relative to silence. On top of that, traffic induced anger you might feel (see: slow mergers, people who don’t believe in turning signals, etc.) can be reduced by the sounds of a favorite song. A 2012 study also found that speeds tended to be lower during drives accompanied by positive music compared to none. The same study, surely contrary to the belief of many parents of freshly 16-year old children, found that the amount of swerving in lanes wasn't different between groups of people exposed to positive, negative, or no music conditions, suggesting that music doesn't distract/affect safety in this regard. [Check this out.]

Come away with me.

Oxytocin. Photo courtesy of wikimedia,org.

Oxytocin. Photo courtesy of wikimedia,org.

Since social connection can be developed by synchronized activities, the rhythmic power of music is an excellent means of fostering this. Oxytocin, the infamous “love hormone”, is also strongly associated with broader social behavior and may be a key player involved with the connectivity that music makes us feel amongst a group (for more on oxytocin read Chris' post: Why you love your dog). Oxytocin works in conjunction with another hormone, vasopressin, which mediates social and courtship behaviors as well as moderates social bonding that occurs during music listening. Remember those natural opioids? Well one in particular beta-endorphin has been suggested to play a role in the feeling of fulfillment one gets during social contact. Maybe this is why it’s so fun singing (or perhaps more along the lines of shouting) Eddie Money’s “Take Me Home Tonight” or Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” with your friends in the car.

Rockin' out. GIF courtesy of

Rockin' out. GIF courtesy of

So very soon the weather will begin to warm and the sing-song sounds of spring will accompany the sunrise each morning. The brain may guide us toward understanding the music and sounds that exist in our world, but the blood that flows there must come from the heart.

And while I spend time wondering where I’ll be going next, maybe the better question is what will I be listening to on my way there.

[To anyone interested in reading more on the subject of neurobiology and music, I highly recommend Daniel J. Levitin’s book, This Is Your Brain On Music.] 

Mattina M. Alonge received a M.S. in Biology from DePaul University under supervision of Dr. Jason Bystriansky where she explored expression of Na+/K+-ATPase isoforms in rainbow trout muscle during swimming challenges. She is currently working at University of Chicago Dept. of Medicine in a translational research lab while also finding time to practice yoga, put her figure skates on, look forward to summer flying trapeze classes, and read stacks of books supported by her membership in a hipster book club.