Music has existed in human societies since prehistory, perhaps because it allows expression and regulation of emotion and evokes pleasure. In this review, we present findings from cognitive neuroscience that bear on the question of how we get from perception of sound patterns to pleasurable responses. First, we identify some of the auditory cortical circuits that are responsible for encoding and storing tonal patterns and discuss evidence that cortical loops between auditory and frontal cortices are important for maintaining musical information in working memory and for the recognition of structural regularities in musical patterns, which then lead to expectancies. Second, we review evidence concerning the mesolimbic striatal system and its involvement in reward, motivation, and pleasure in other domains. Recent data indicate that this dopaminergic system mediates pleasure associated with music; specifically, reward value for music can be coded by activity levels in the nucleus accumbens, whose functional connectivity with auditory and frontal areas increases as a function of increasing musical reward. We propose that pleasure in music arises from interactions between cortical loops that enable predictions and expectancies to emerge from sound patterns and subcortical systems responsible for reward and valuation.
Some 40,000 years ago, a person–a musician–picked up a vulture bone that had delicately and precisely incised holes along its length and blew upon it to play a tune. We know this thanks to recent remarkable archeological finds (Fig. 1) near the Danube, where several such flutes were uncovered (1). What bears reflection here is that, for an instrument to exist in the upper Paleolithic, music must have already existed in an advanced form for many thousands of years already; else it would have been impossible to construct something as technologically advanced as a flute that plays a particular scale. We may safely infer therefore that music is among the most ancient of human cognitive traits.