Study: Music heard for the first time 'lights up' brain reward center

April 12, 2013 at 4:16 PM
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MONTREAL, April 12 (UPI) -- Listening to music that's new to the listener is rewarding for the brain, a team of Canadian researcher says.

MRI scans of volunteers in experiments showed the reward center of their brains became activated when they heard a song for the first time.

The more the volunteers said they enjoyed the music the stronger the connections to the reward region of the brain -- called the nucleus accumbens -- were, the researchers said.

"We know that the nucleus accumbens is involved with reward," Valorie Salimpoor of the Rotman Research Institute in Toronto told the BBC. "But music is abstract: It's not like you are really hungry and you are about to get a piece of food and you are really excited about it because you are going to eat it -- or the same thing applies to sex or money -- that's when you would normally see activity in the nucleus accumbens.

"But what's cool is that you're anticipating and getting excited over something entirely abstract -- and that's the next sound that is coming up," she said.

In the study at McGill University, scientists played 60 excerpts of new music for 19 volunteers, based on their musical preferences, while the volunteers were scanned in an MRI machine.

Depending on the level of activity recorded in the brain's reward center, they said, they could predict whether the participant would find it enjoyable.

"As they are listening to this music, we can look at their brain activity and figure out how they are appreciating or enjoying this music before they even tell us anything," Salimpoor said.

Such studies of brain activity might help explain why people are drawn to different styles of music, the researchers said.

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