From perception to pleasure: 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.




Music and its neural substrates refer to the complex network of brain regions and neural pathways involved in the perception, processing, and production of music. The study of music and the brain, known as cognitive neuroscience of music, seeks to understand how the brain responds to music and how musical experiences are encoded and represented in the brain. Here are some key points about music and its neural substrates:

1. **Auditory Processing**: The primary auditory cortex, located in the temporal lobes of the brain, is responsible for processing sound information, including music. Neural responses to music begin in the auditory cortex, where basic features of sound, such as pitch, rhythm, and timbre, are analyzed.

2. **Emotional Processing**: Music has a powerful effect on emotions, and multiple brain regions are involved in processing the emotional content of music. The limbic system, including structures such as the amygdala and hippocampus, plays a central role in emotional processing and memory formation in response to music.

3. **Reward and Pleasure**: Listening to music activates the brain’s reward system, including the release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with pleasure and motivation. The nucleus accumbens, a key component of the brain’s reward circuitry, is activated during musical experiences, contributing to the pleasurable effects of music.

4. **Motor Control and Coordination**: When individuals engage in musical activities such as playing instruments or dancing, motor regions of the brain are activated. These include the motor cortex, which controls movement, as well as regions involved in coordination and timing, such as the cerebellum.

5. **Memory and Learning**: Music has the ability to evoke memories and enhance learning and memory processes. Brain regions involved in memory formation, such as the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex, are activated during musical experiences, contributing to the encoding and retrieval of musical information.

6. **Cross-Modal Integration**: Music perception often involves the integration of auditory information with other sensory modalities, such as visual or motor cues. Brain regions involved in multisensory integration, such as the superior temporal sulcus and parietal cortex, play a role in integrating these different sources of information during musical experiences.

7. **Plasticity and Adaptation**: The brain exhibits remarkable plasticity in response to musical training and experience. Long-term engagement with music can lead to structural and functional changes in the brain, including increased gray matter volume in areas associated with music processing and enhanced connectivity between brain regions involved in music perception and production.

Overall, the neural substrates of music are distributed across multiple brain regions and involve complex interactions between sensory, emotional, motor, and cognitive processes. Studying how the brain responds to music provides insights into the fundamental mechanisms of human cognition and the unique ways in which music affects the brain and behavior.


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