April 12, 2013 at 1:53 pm

There’s A Part of the Brain for Buying Music; Here’s How It Works

brain music reward center nucleus accumbensA McGill University study found that activity in the brain’s nucleus accumbens reflects one’s willingness to buy music after hearing it for the first time.

It’s hardly surprising that a part of the brain also known as the “reward center” would be responsible for deciding whether to buy (or like/favorite/collect) a particular piece of music, but it’s pretty neat that the amount of activity in that reward center even corresponds to how much one is willing to spend on it (listen to the most and least expensive songs below).

It might be interesting to chart this brain activity over the past 14 years across the entire population, as people paid less for music (until last year), but that would be decidedly trickier.

“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 or buy it,” lead investigator Dr. Valorie Salimpoor told Science Daily. “This is the nucleus accumbens, which is involved in forming expectations that may be rewarding.”

The same study (which you can read here as a .pdf if you speak neuroscience) found that cross-talk between the reward center and the auditory cortex, where our musical memory and knowledge live, as well as other brain areas involved in “high-level sequencing, complex pattern recognition, and areas involved in assigning emotional and reward value to stimuli,” in the words of Science Daily, correspond to liking or buying something too.

auditory cortex

The primary auditory cortex, also known as Brodmann areas 41 and 42

So basically, the more you enjoy a song with both the basic reward circuitry that’s also responsible for eating, reproduction, and other biological necessities, as well as the more advanced, highly-evolved parts of your brain, the more likely you are to “favorite” or purchase that song. It has to hit your particular brain on both levels — the reward center that’s fairly standard, as well as the auditory cortex that’s apparently more unique to each individual.

If a song fulfills our particular expectations about how it’s going to unfold — if, for instance, “the drop” happens when we expect it to, or a song denies our expectations with a weird chord change we weren’t expecting — that’s a big part of how music makes us feel emotions, according to the study.

“What makes music so emotionally powerful is the creation of expectations,” continued Salimpoor. “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.”

The study used Last.fm and Pandora music, and only included songs the people being studied had never heard before.

The song they paid the most for was “Terrible Things” by April Smith and the Great Picture Show, which we found on YouTube:

YouTube Preview Image

The song they paid the least for, out of all sixty on the list, was “Go To Get Back Home” by Hacienda, which we found on Grooveshark:

Go to Get Back Home by Hacienda on Grooveshark

You can listen to them all here.

From the study: “Our results provide, to the best of our knowledge, the first direct evidence that the intense pleasure experienced when listening to music
is associated with dopamine activity in the mesolimbic reward system, including both dorsal and ventral striatum. This phylogenetically ancient circuitry has evolved to reinforce basic biological behaviors with high adaptive value. However, the rewarding qualities of music listening are not obviously directly adaptive. That is, musical stimuli, similar to other aesthetic stimuli, are perceived as being rewarding by the listener, rather than exerting a direct biological or chemical
influence. Furthermore, the perception that results in a rewarding response is relatively specific to the listener, as there is large variability in musical preferences amongst individuals. Thus, through complex cognitive mechanisms, humans are able to obtain pleasure from music, a highly abstract reward consisting of just a sequence of tones unfolding over time, which is comparable to the pleasure experienced from more basic biological stimuli. One explanation for this phenomenon is that it is related to enhancement of emotions. The emotions induced by music are evoked, among other things, by temporal phenomena, such as expectations, delay, tension, resolution, prediction, surprise and anticipation.”

(Thanks, Steve Turnridge; image courtesy of CUNY))