Music & Wellbeing (Part 2). I feel good: Music and feelings of pleasure

Continuing this mini-series on the the value of music in our wellbeing, today’s post examines how & why we feel pleasure upon hearing music.

I feel good: Music and feelings of pleasure

A number of studies on the human brain have noticed our ability to differentiate between ‘noise’ and ‘music’. Listening to music uses the same areas of the brain as when processing speech. (Schön et al, 2010). Music also activates sections of the brain responsible for pleasurable feeling (Salimpoor et al, 2015), known colloquially as the ‘reward centres’ of the brain (Icahn School of Medicine, 2015). Salimpoor et al’s (2015) report confirmed:

Not only is dopamine released when desirable sound events are heard, but also suggest that musical events leading up to peak pleasure moments may generate a sense of anticipation and lead to dopamine release when individuals listen to familiar music (Salimpoor et al, 2015)

Levitin goes on to explain activity in the cerebellum during his studies:

In my laboratory we found strong activations in the cerebellum when we asked people to listen to music, but not when we asked them to listen to noise. The cerebellum appears to be involved in tracking the beat. And the cerebellum has shown up in our studies in another context: when we ask people to listen to music they like versus music they don’t like, or familiar music versus unfamiliar music (Levitin, 2006, pp. 174-175)

Is timing the key difference between what makes the sounds we hear ‘noise’ and ‘music’? Schaffer (1977) reasons that the modern human, having grown up in an industrialised world, has what he refers to as ‘lo-fi hearing’. In effect, we are tuning out all of the everyday noise our environment bombards out ears with on a daily basis. A person from a time before the growth of large cities and the industrial revolution had higher definition hearing. This may also be in part due to our earlier need to rely on bird and animal calls as a means of hunting for food or for our own safety – in both cases, essential to our survival:

It can be argued that the survival of our ancient ancestors depended on their ability to detect patterns in sounds, derive meaning from them, and adjust their behaviour [sic] accordingly (Juslin, 2013)

Furthermore, Keil (1994, p. 97) refers to the social aspect of music utilised by our ancestors, stating that everyone would have been a full participant in music rituals staged by early civilisations. These participatory rituals promoted a greater interconnectedness with nature, society and an ‘ever deeper and more satisfying knowledge of who we are’ (Keil, 1994, p. 98).

Kania (2013) discusses the ‘aesthetic’ definition of music put forward by Jerrold Levinson (1990), who asserts that music is a collection of sounds, deliberately organised, with the aim of ‘eliciting a certain kind of heightened experience’ (Kania, 2013, p. 639). However, Kania believes music is more than this, finding one hole in Levinson’s argument in particular:

If you think, however, that a lullaby sung to put a baby to sleep is an example of music, then it is a counterexample to this definition, since the singer intends precisely the opposite of active engagement on the baby’s part (Kania, 2013, p. 639).

The research of Salimpoor et al (2011) found that ‘Music, an abstract stimulus, can arouse feelings of euphoria and craving’ and that during their tests, ‘we found endogenous dopamine release in the striatum at peak emotional arousal during music listening’. This illustrates the positive effect music has on the human mind’s neural pathways, resulting in a general feeling of wellbeing (Salimoor et al, 2011). However I argue that such studies don’t take into account the huge array of external factors our brains process at the same time as listening to music. Previous existing research also states the need to consider external factors and the wider social context of the subjects (Anders et al, 2012;North & Hargreaves, 2008; Mitchell et al, 2007), or, as Kieran (2013) puts it:

The pleasures afforded by sport, coffee drinking and good conversation are not wholly specifiable independently of the nature of the objects or activity involved…So too with good art generally. (Kieran, 2013, p. 290)

(This article was first published in July 2015)


Anders, Y., Rossbach, H., Weinert, S., Ebert, S., Kuger, S., Lehrl, S., Von Maurice, J. (2012) ‘Home and preschool learning environments and their relations to the development of early numeracy skills’, Early Childhood Research Quarterly, Vol. 27, pp. 231–244. Available From

Icahn School of Medicine (2015). Brain reward pathways. Available at: (Last accessed: 24/04/2015).

Juslin, P.N. (2013) ‘Review: From everyday emotions to aesthetic emotions: Towards a unified theory of musical emotions’, Physics of Life Reviews, vol. 10, pp. 235-266. Available from: 10.1016/j.plrev.2013.05.008.

Kania, A. (2013) ‘Music’, in Gaut, B. & McIver Lopes, D. (eds.) The routledge companion to aesthetics. 3rd Edition. USA & Canada: Routledge, pp. 639-648.

Keil, C. (1994) ‘Participatory discrepancies and the power of music’, in Keil, C. & Feld, S. (eds.) Music grooves: essays and dialogues. United States of America: The University of Chicago Press, pp. 96-108.

Kieran, M. (2013) ‘Value of art’, in Gaut, B. & McIver Lopes, D. (eds.) The routledge companion to aesthetics. 3rd Edition. USA & Canada: Routledge, pp. 289-298.

Levitin, D. (2006). This is your brain on music: understanding a human obsession. Great Britain: Atlantic Books.

North, A. & Hargreaves, D. (2008) The social and applied psychology of music. United States: Oxford University Press.

Salimpoor, V., Benovoy, M., Larcher, K., Dagher, A. & Zatorre, R. (2011) ‘Anatomically distinct dopamine release during anticipation and experience of peak emotion to music’. Nature Neuroscience. Vol. 14 (No. 2, February), pp. 257-264.

Salimpoor, V., Zald, D., Zatorre, R., Dagher, A., & McIntosh, A. (2015) ‘Review: Predictions and the brain: how musical sounds become rewarding’, Trends in Cognitive Sciences, vol. 19, pp. 86-91. Available from: 10.1016/j.tics.2014.12.001.

Schafer, R. (1977) The soundscape: our sonic environment and the tuning of the world. USA: Destiny Books.

Schön, D., Gordon, R., Campagne, A., Magne, C., Astésano, C., Anton, J., & Besson, M. (2010) ‘Similar cerebral networks in language, music and song perception’, Neuroimage, vol. 51, pp. 450-461. Available from: 10.1016/j.neuroimage.2010.02.023.

Published by timguitar

Guitarist, composer, music therapist and avid bibliophile. Providing an insight into my life as a professional musician, lessons learned as an allied health practitioner, as well as various musings on the world of music in general. Expect plenty of articles about music & wellbeing, classical guitar, jazz, world/roots genres, and all sorts of guitar-related chat.

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