Forget Drugs- Let’s Just Use Music


“You can’t overdose on music”


Music is a ubiquitous feature of humanity. It has the ability to elicit significant emotional responses from listeners, many of whom can describe a sense of chills, wonder and intense enjoyment during particularly beautiful or immersive pieces of music. Multiple groups of researchers interested in this phenomenon set out to find the neurological implications of this enjoyment, particularly why we feel chills and sometimes almost euphoric responses to some works of music. Using neuroimaging techniques, they attempted to discern some of the mechanisms behind humanity’s love for music.

Using Positron Emission Tomography (PET), a group of researchers looked at various parts of the brain associated with reward pathways, motivation, and negative emotion as participants listened to specific music selections (example). Asking the subjects to report when they experienced chills as they listened to selections of classical music, they measured arousal (heart rate, muscle tension and respiratory rate) and recorded neuronal activity during the music. They found that music not only initiated a measurable increase in chills and physiological arousal, but a number of neurological changes took place as well.

As a participant experienced chills, activity in midbrain nuclei that acts as reward system of the brain significantly increased while activity in the amygdala and other brain areas associated with negative emotion significantly decreased. In addition, peak experiences of music stimulated the release of endogenous opioids in the same pathways. These results are eerily similar to observed changes in brain activity and chemistry during cocaine/opioid use, food consumption and sexual behavior. Researchers proposed that music initiates our euphoric response by both activating the reward system and decreasing negative emotion (Blood & Zatorre, 2001). Music might work its positive effects not only by activating the reward system but also suppressing negative emotional responses.

Ten years later, researchers armed with more advanced fMRI techniques aimed to discern more specifically how these brain regions reacted in response to music. They wanted to know whether the brain reacted more in anticipation or response to peak emotional arousal during music listening, in addition to measuring arousal during anticipation and peak experience. Following a very similar procedure as the above study, they found that the caudate nucleus and nucleus accumbens were involved during anticipation and during the experience of peak emotional arousal to music, respectively. Both of these structures are key nuclei in the reward pathway. The researchers also found strong evidence that both anticipation and peak pleasure moments instigated dopamine release in the mesolimbic reward system, and that number of chills and subjective pleasure of music was positively correlated with activity in the caudate nucleus  (Salimpoor et al., 2011). This indicates that music can cause its positive effects via activity in the reward pathway and dopamine release, both during anticipation of emotional experience and during the emotional peak itself.

Overall, these studies demonstrate strong evidence for the neurological basis of why we find music enjoyable, and particularly why music can elicit such strong emotional responses from us. So where do we go from here? This action of music is very similar to the action of some drugs, reducing negative emotion and the neuronal activity associated with it while stimulating the reward pathway and instigating the release of dopamine. Can we use this? One possible application is in the treatment of pain, either chronic or acute. Pain is suppressed by endogenous opioids, opioids whose release can be stimulated by these musical experiences, while the emotional response to pain can be reduced by activity of dopaminergic pathways. Music may therefore have the ability to mitigate pain and the negative emotions that come with it.

In fact, this research is a newly emerging field. Music has been observed to help post-operative pain (Finlay et al., 2014) and reduce pain response in some hospital patients (Evans D., 2002), but these and similar studies have focused more on music’s distraction and relaxation assistance. Little to no research has been done exploring how music listening can directly help mitigate pain responses in the brain. This area of research is potentially invaluable to those suffering from painful conditions.

Music can elicit visceral responses in listeners and is a ubiquitous feature of humankind. It has been shown to act similarly to drugs and sex in terms of neurological responses in the brain, which may help explain why it is so prevalent in humankind, regardless of time, place and culture. Research is emerging that suggests it might also have analgesic uses, whether through neurological mechanisms or something completely separate. Music is a beautiful and powerful force throughout humankind, and has profound effects on our brains themselves.


Blood, A. J., & Zatorre, R. J. (2001). Intensely pleasurable responses to music correlate with activity in brain regions implicated in reward and emotion. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 98(20), 11818–11823.

Evans D. (2002). The effectiveness of music as an intervention for hospital patients: A systematic review. Journal of Advanced Nursing, 37, 8–18

Finlay, K. A., Wilson, J. A., Gaston, P., Al-Dujaili, E. A. S., & Power, I. (2014). Post-operative pain management through audio analgesia: investigating musical constructs. Psychology of Music. doi: 10.1177/0305735615577247

Mitchell L. A., MacDonald R. A. R., Knussen C. (2008). An investigation of the effects of music and art on pain perception. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, 2(3), 162–170

Salimpoor V. N., Benovoy M., Larcher K., Dagher A., Zatorre R. J. (2011). Anatomically distinct dopamine release during anticipation and experience of peak emotion to music. Nature and Neuroscience(14), 257–262.

3 thoughts on “Forget Drugs- Let’s Just Use Music

  1. That music often leaves us with feelings of positivity and perhaps even euphoria, at times, is something I’ve observed often, and the exploration of this as a possible route of pain treatment is really interesting. I’m curious, however, as to how we can explain the times that listening to music produces less happy feelings, and the tendency of individuals to, at times, “wallow” in music that makes them sad. I think immediately of when we see the ending of a relationship or the loss of a loved one, and music evokes not feelings of joy or removal of the pain, but often makes our negative feelings more pronounced.


    1. That’s definitely an interesting idea- a lot of the discussion on why we like sad music can agree that we don’t just like music because it makes us happy, but because it does a great job of both satisfying our expectations while surprising us in some way. Even songs we have heard a hundred times or more can resonate with us because we have attached emotional significance to the first time or so we heard it. Ever notice how some songs always remind out of a specific moment in time? In order for that to happen, we have to have had some significant response to that song at that moment, and that only happens, some argue, when the song plays into our expectations while still being different in an unexpected way. This can be lyrically, at a beat drop, a sudden change in rhythm, whatever. But it has to happen.
      If you want to read more, check out this article!
      And if you really want to go in depth to the neural connectivity in musical experience, here is a nicely written 30 page discussion on it.


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