The neurophysiology of musical perception: a few words about the musical "orgasm"

Often, music lovers have to hear that they got a real "orgasm" from an album or a live performance. In the light of the results of some neurobiological studies conducted in the last 2 decades, such comparisons no longer seem overly emotional and grotesque. Immersion in this topic led me to the idea that the slogan “sex, drugs and rock`n`roll” is not only the three commandments of the sixties hedonist, but also 3 facets of the same physiological process.

Today there are a lot of publications that are devoted to the influence of music on the psyche, but the vast majority of them evaluate the psychological effects of listening to certain genres (works), or the possibility of using music for psychotherapeutic purposes. Studies of the neurophysiological processes that cause such an influence of music are usually the focus of attention of scientific publications and a small circle of specialists.

In this post I will talk about one of the neurobiological studies of auditory perception, the stages of perception of a musical work, and what processes underlie the enjoyment of music. As a basis for this article, I used several publications from the journal Since, as well as a small personal baggage of knowledge on neuropsychology.

MRI during track evaluation

An impressive amount of data on the evaluation process of a musical work was obtained as a result of a joint experiment conducted by the Montreal Neurological Institute, the Rotman Institute and McGill University (The Neuro laboratory and clinic). The results of the study showed what exactly happens in the brain when evaluating a piece of music.

The subjects were asked to listen to a song that they had never heard before, to subjectively evaluate it, and also to resolve the issue of acquiring this work, indicating the amount they can spend on it. During the experiment, participants listened to 60 tracks of different genres, while data on the activity and state of their brain was obtained by magnetic resonance imaging (for the experiment, a program was used, the interface of which resembled itunes).

As it turned out, the activity of certain brain structures makes it possible to determine almost unmistakably whether the participant likes the music and is ready to purchase the track he likes. It is known that expectations that can bring pleasure are formed by the adjacent core of the striatum. As the experiment has confirmed - this rule is fully valid for the pleasure of music.

Interestingly, the nucleus accumbens is the part of the limbic system that controls the so-called. dopamine response to the vast majority of stimuli. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that plays a key role in creating a feeling of pleasure. In the case of music, the higher the level of human satisfaction with a piece of music, the higher the activity of the nucleus accumbens, and, accordingly, the dopaminergic “pleasure reactions” are more intense.

Observations of one of the leaders of the experiment, Dr. Valori Salimpur, made it possible to reveal a clear connection between the nucleus accumbens, the auditory cortex, and the brain regions responsible for emotional reactions. The study revealed the following pattern:
the higher the enjoyment of music, the more intense the exchange of signals between the nucleus accumbens and other parts of the brain.

From these observations it can also be concluded that the pleasure of an unfamiliar piece of music is directly dependent on the number and activity of the emotional and cognitive structures of the brain that were involved in its assessment.

Stages of perception of a musical work

Simplifiedly, the process of evaluating a new (not familiar to man) musical work can be represented as follows:

  1. The impulses through the auditory nerve enter the primary auditory zone of the cortex, where sound is recorded and differentiated, as well as the combination of the elementary signs of a sound stimulus.
  2. In the secondary auditory cortex, complex neurons analyze amplitude-frequency, rhythmic, and melodic features of the audio signal, responding to specific combinations of frequency-amplitude parameters and modulations. The upper part of the temporal cortex is included in the process, the images of already familiar works are compared with the incoming signals.
  3. Further, emotional (somato-sensory cortex, ventral striatum, prefrontal cortex, hippocampus, etc.) and cognitive structures (in particular, abstract thinking centers in the frontal lobes of the cortex) are integrated into the analysis process
  4. As a result of a comprehensive assessment of the signal, a feedback is formed, suggesting a positive or negative evaluation of the musical work. In the first case, the activity of the nucleus accumbens, which triggers the chain of mediator reactions in the synapses of the entire limbic system (to put it simply, the pleasure center works). At the same time, the adjacent core, on the basis of the data obtained, “vanguet” what will happen next, thanks to which we begin to enjoy from the first chords, rather than listening to the work in full.

In the experiment described, the subjective evaluations clearly correlated with the MRI results. The more active the nucleus accumbens, the more money the subjects were willing to pay for the track.

Music, food and sex

I believe that people familiar with the neurophysiological processes occurring during orgasm, noticed some similarities in the formation of the reaction of pleasure. If you exaggerate the conclusions made from the experiment, it turns out that the pleasure of music is in many ways similar to the pleasure of sex.

Both in the first and in the second case the central structure, which determines pleasure, is the nucleus accumbens, the main neurotransmitter is dopamine. In the case of music, as well as in the case of sex, the emotional structures of the neocortex and cognitive centers responsible for the formation of images are actively involved.

Such a similarity suggests a series of interesting reflections. In particular, it seems logical to assume that in the distant past of mankind, music was something more significant than just a pleasant set of sounds or background accompaniment (for example: chants and rhythmic compositions for performing ritualistic acts, in the cults of some African, Australian and South American tribes). Evolutionary, such significance of music was fixed in the form of a dopaminergic reaction of pleasure. Anyway, the vast majority of researchers believe that the pleasure of music as a neurobiological process is difficult to overestimate.

As Dr. Robert Mash (The Neuro) notes:

“Music consists of many consecutive sounds that, one by one, do not have special value, but in combination with each other in accordance with certain models, they can act as a source of pleasure over time, which is of no small interest.”


Using MRI, scientists have come to grips with the discovery of biological and physiological mechanisms that determine genre differences in a person’s musical tastes, in other words, we will soon understand why some people like jazz more and others like black metal or drum and base. According to leading scientists involved in this topic, over the next ten years we will learn almost everything about perception and reactions to music.


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