As long as we can trace back humanity, we can observe that we always had a keen interest in either music or the arts. From the depictions of daily lives of humans in the caves during the ice age to the modern music of the present world, we have always been participating in such activities for no particular gain. Music also has been and still plays a significant role in special occasions and ceremonies as specific music is played or songs are sung to commemorate the moment. But why is that so? Well, the answer to this question is, of course, hormones.
Emotions and Music
You must have realized this yourself when you are having a bad day, you put on a pair of headphones and start listening to your favorite song and suddenly you are in a much better place. Opposite of it is true as well, if you happen to be in an overall positive mood, sad songs can bring you down and can even make some sensitive people weep. There are various reasons for it like when was the first time you heard this song, under what circumstances, or how you personally relate to it. But generally talking about the positive end of the spectrum, a hormone known as dopamine is responsible for our happy mood as we listen to music.
What is Dopamine?
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that is often referred to as a “feel-good” hormone as it is associated with pleasure and reward. Being a neurotransmitter it acts as a chemical messenger between neurons and it is naturally released when our brain is expecting a reward. Though it doesn’t have to be exactly that way, once our brain starts associating certain activities with a reward, mere anticipation can also trigger a release of dopamine. For example people addicted to coffee will not only experience a release of dopamine upon drinking it but even the smell of coffee can release this hormone in such individuals.
It works on the cycle of motivation, reward, and reinforcement. Initially it is our desire that motivate us to carry out certain task in order to achieve a reward. Say one desires chicken parmesan, this is the motivation and reward, the motivation will enable the person to set up the kitchen and start cooking, this motivation is a driving force which leads people to do activities. Finally, if the reward, chicken parmesan in this case, tastes how they wanted it will release dopamine and reinforce it as a trigger. But if it tastes bad, one’s mood will be quickly dampened and it will be reinforced as a negative reward.
Apart from the natural cycle, substances like nicotine, alcohol, and other drugs also initiates the dopamine cycle, that’s one reason it is difficult for people to quit them.
Dopamine and Music
It is quite obvious that dopamine is released upon listening to music, but researchers wanted to test and record what exactly happens in the brain. In a study, researchers maniupated dopaminergic transmission in 277 participants as they were listening to music. In three separate sessions separated by a week, the scientists orally gave participants drugs that were dopamine precursor, dopamine antagonists, and placebo.
Basically, the precursor was levodopa which increases the availability of dopeminergic and the antagonist was risperidone that reduces dopeminergic signaling. Finally, conducting the tests experts observed the release of dopamine and behavior of the participants. When participants were administered risperidone, it was obvious that it would slow down or even block the release of dopamine in the system, which did happen. However, interestingly it was seen that participants almost lost their ability to enjoy the music as well, they were not deriving any pleasure from music they loved. In the case of precursor, it was observed that participants were almost euphoric as they listenined to the music. This was expected as well, because the higher the release of dopamine the higher pleasure one experiences, but what was surprising was that these people were willing to spend way too much money to buy more music and other products. Scientists believed this was because of their overall happy state during the time. Scientists strongly point that their findings should not be taken as something to abuse drugs for pleasure, as they do not condone it, this was solely for research purposes.
Ultimately, dopamine, the pleasure chemical is what allows us to experience the pleasure from music. Perhaps that’s the reason why we humans have been creating and enjoying it for such a long time.