From perception to pleasure: Music and its neural substrates

Music and its neural substrates


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.

PDF – PNAS-2013-Zatorre-10430-7

“From Perception to Pleasure: Music and Its Neural Substrates” is a fascinating topic that explores the complex relationship between music and the brain. This area of research examines how the brain processes musical stimuli, from the initial perception of sound to the emotional and hedonic responses that music can evoke. Here’s an overview of some key points in this field of study:

1. Perception of Musical Stimuli: The brain’s auditory system is responsible for processing musical stimuli, including pitch, rhythm, timbre, and melody. Research has shown that different regions of the brain, such as the auditory cortex and the temporal lobes, are involved in analyzing and interpreting these musical elements. Neuroimaging techniques like functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and electroencephalography (EEG) have been used to map the brain’s responses to music and identify the neural circuits involved in auditory perception.

2. Emotional and Affective Responses: Music has the power to evoke a wide range of emotions, from joy and excitement to sadness and nostalgia. Studies have demonstrated that listening to music can activate brain regions associated with emotional processing, such as the limbic system and the prefrontal cortex. The brain’s reward system, including the release of neurotransmitters like dopamine and endorphins, may also play a role in the pleasurable responses to music.

3. Cross-Modal Integration: Music engages not only the auditory system but also other sensory modalities, such as vision, touch, and movement. Research suggests that the brain integrates information from multiple sensory channels to create a holistic perceptual experience of music. This cross-modal integration may enhance the emotional and aesthetic qualities of music and contribute to its pleasurable effects.

4. Individual Differences: There is considerable variability in how people perceive and respond to music, influenced by factors such as musical training, cultural background, and personal preferences. Genetic factors may also contribute to individual differences in musical perception and enjoyment. Studying these individual differences can provide insights into the underlying mechanisms of music processing in the brain.

5. Clinical Applications: Understanding the neural substrates of music perception and pleasure has potential implications for clinical interventions and therapies. Music-based interventions have been used to improve mood, reduce anxiety, and enhance cognitive function in various clinical populations, including patients with neurological disorders, psychiatric conditions, and chronic pain.

Overall, research on “From Perception to Pleasure: Music and Its Neural Substrates” sheds light on the intricate neural mechanisms underlying our experience of music and its profound effects on the human brain and behavior. Continued investigation in this field promises to deepen our understanding of the cognitive, emotional, and social dimensions of music and its therapeutic potential in diverse contexts.

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