If making music isn’t the most ancient of human activities, it’s got to be pretty close. Melody and rhythm can trigger feelings from sadness to serenity to joy to awe; they can bring memories from childhood vividly back to life. The taste of a tiny cake may have inspired Marcel Proust to pen the seven-volume novel Remembrance of Things Past, but fire up the Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction” and you’ll throw the entire baby-boom generation into a Woodstock-era reverie.
From an evolutionary point of view, however, music doesn’t seem to make sense. Unlike sex, say, or food, it did nothing to help our distant ancestors survive and reproduce. Yet music and its effects are in powerful evidence across virtually all cultures, so it must satisfy some sort of universal need — often in ways we can’t begin to fathom. A few years ago, a single composition lifted Valorie Salimpoor almost instantaneously out of a deep funk (it was Brahms’ Hungarian Dance No. 5, to be precise), and from that moment, she decided it would be her life’s work to figure out music’s mysteries.
It’s working out pretty well so far: in the latest issue of Science, Salimpoor, now a neuroscientist at McGill University in Montreal, reports, along with several colleagues, that music triggers activity in the nucleus accumbens, the same brain structure that releases the “pleasure chemical” dopamine during sex and eating (and, on a darker note, drives addictive behavior as well). Animals get that same thrill from food and sex, but not, despite the occasional dancing cockatoo, from music.
But the nucleus accumbens is just part of the neural symphony. “Music also activates the amygdala,” says Salimpoor, “which is involved with the processing of emotion, as well as areas of the prefrontal cortex involved in abstract decisionmaking. When we’re listening to music, the most advanced areas of the brain tie in to the most ancient.”