What makes us buy music

Brain activities in listening to and evaluating music revealed by new study

This is a song from the largest selling album of all times – Michael Jackson’s Thriller

Listen to this music. You would have probably heard it before. When you heard it for the first time, what prompted you to buy it? Why does some music connect to us so deeply and compel us to buy? A study by at the Montreal Neurological Institute and Hospital—The Neuro, McGill University explored the activities in the brain involved in the purchase of music.

EarphonesVolunteers were asked to listen to music exceprts that they had never heard before and then bid the amount they would buy the music for. All this while they were undergoing fMRI scans so that the research team could see the brain activity.
“When people listen to a piece of music they have never heard before, activity in one brain region can reliably and consistently predict whether they will like it or will buy it, this is the same part of the brain [nucleus accumbens] which is involved in forming expectations that may be rewarding,” says lead investigator Dr. Valorie Salimpoor, who conducted the research “What makes music so emotionally powerful is the creation of expectations. Activity in the nucleus accumbens is an indicator that expectations were met or surpassed, and in our study we found that the more activity we see in this brain area while people are listening to music, the more money they are willing to spend.”

However the activity of nucleus accumbens is a team effort. The nucleus accumbens consults with the auditory cortex [a region of the brain where records of previously-heard sounds are stored]. This interaction is key to assigning value to the music—through the dopamine circuits. The dopamine circuits help us do something again that had previously been rewarding, something even as primal as eating and sex.

“This is interesting because music consists of a series of sounds that when considered alone have no inherent value, but when arranged together through patterns over time can act as a reward, says Dr. Robert Zatorre, researcher at The Neuro and co-director of the International Laboratory for Brain, Music and Sound Research. “The integrated activity of brain circuits involved in pattern recognition, prediction, and emotion allow us to experience music as an aesthetic or intellectual reward.”

“The brain activity in each participant was the same when they were listening to music that they ended up purchasing, although the pieces they chose to buy were all different,” adds Dr. Salimpoor. “These results help us to see why people like different music – each person has their own uniquely shaped auditory cortex, which is formed based on all the sounds and music heard throughout our lives. Also, the sound templates we store are likely to have previous emotional associations.”

When we hear a music piece for the first time, based on what we have previously learnt to be rewarding we expect the sounds to unfold in a certain manner. If the music meets our expectations of reward, we like it and form more expectations for the music that follows. This is a constant process of “prediction-reward-prediction”. The new research proves that we make these predictions even when exposed to an abstract stimulus like music never heard before. This dance of pattern-recognition and reward-recognition is so well orchestrated that it can bring us amazing joy listening to music that we love and extreme frustration listening to music hate.
This study was published in the journal Science .


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