How does music make people happy?

How does music make you happy?

If the right song is on the radio, it can put us in a good mood from now on. But why actually? What is known about the neurological basis of this effect? Experiments show that the neurotransmitter dopamine is primarily responsible for feelings of elation. Its release in the brain not only leads to the fact that listening to music makes us happy. The release of the happiness hormone also makes us want to do it over and over again.

Hardly any external stimulus can influence our mood as strongly and directly as music: It makes us cry, awakens memories - or causes downright high feelings. This effect is so pleasant that we strive for it again and again in everyday life. We turn up the radio when our favorite song is playing, sing in a choir or go to a concert. “Being able to experience joy through complex acoustic or visual stimuli such as music and works of art is one of the particularly fascinating characteristics of people,” write Laura Ferreri from the University of Barcelona and her colleagues. But how can this phenomenon be explained? To find out, the scientists studied what happens in the brain when listening to music.

Focus on happiness hormone

She was particularly interested in the role of the messenger substance dopamine, known as the happiness hormone - a neurotransmitter that plays a key role in our reward system. Is there a direct link between this substance and the positive feeling many people associate with music? The researchers tested this with 27 test persons, to whom they administered the dopamine precursor levodopa once, once a placebo and once the dopamine blocker risperidone with an interval of at least one week. The latter blocks the signaling pathways mediated by the happiness hormone in the brain.

After each drug administration, the actual experiment followed: music was played to the participants. They got to hear their personal favorite songs as well as ten other songs selected by Ferreri's team. While listening to the music, the test subjects were asked to rate this experience: How good did they feel after listening to the respective songs? Would you be willing to purchase the song you heard - and if so, at what price? In addition, the scientists examined the body reactions of the test persons by measuring the skin conductivity. With this method, among other things, emotional states of excitement can be measured, because positive feelings or stress change the sweat secretion and thus also the conductivity of the skin.

No goosebumps

The results showed: If the effect of dopamine in the brain was blocked by risperidone, the music experience for the participants changed significantly. They found the music to be less pleasant and were not motivated to spend a lot of money on purchasing the pieces they heard. This was also evident in their physical reactions, as Ferreri and her colleagues report. In addition to the changed skin conductivity, the reduced feeling of happiness could be read from another interesting detail: The music did not give the test subjects any goose bumps - a typical sign not only of cold, but also of positive arousal.

It looked completely different with the administration of levodopa. If the dopamine availability was artificially increased by this means, the music unfolded an even stronger effect than usual. The test subjects felt more elated and generously spent money. “So you were motivated to hear the music again,” writes the team. Her body reactions also revealed that the music was touching her. "This enabled us to demonstrate a direct connection between dopamine, joy triggered by music, and motivation," the researchers state. “Enjoying a piece of music, wanting to hear it again and being ready to spend money on it - all of this has to do with the release of dopamine,” concludes co-author Antoni Rodríguez Fornells.

Source: Laura Ferreri (University of Barcelona) et al., Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, doi: 10.1073 / pnas.1811878116

February 21, 2020

© - Daniela Albat