A passion through the ages

Prof. Robert Zatorre, a music cognition pioneer at The Neuro, delves deep into the brain’s circuitry to reveal why humans have always loved music in his new book, From Perception to Pleasure.

The oldest known musical instruments—delicate bone flutes found in what is now southern Germany—date back to the Upper Paleolithic period about 40,000 years ago, during the last glaciation episode in the Northern Hemisphere.  

“I was fascinated by this discovery because it suggests humans have produced and derived pleasure from music for nearly as long as there have been humans,” says Prof. Robert Zatorre. 

“These flutes are an advanced piece of technology. Craftworkers expended their time, energy and skills producing instruments that make abstract sounds and seem to have no practical use. Music must have been meaningful and incredibly important to our early human ancestors, who were trying to survive in difficult conditions in an ice age,” says Zatorre, who holds the Canada Research Chair in Auditory Cognitive Neuroscience at McGill University, with a lab at The Neuro (Montreal Neurological Institute-Hospital). 

Why do we love music? 

Photo of Prof. Robert Zatorre against the backdrop of a bookshelf.
Cognitive neuroscientist Robert Zatorre first came to McGill to work with with the legendary Brenda Milner.
In his new book, From Perception to Pleasure: The Neuroscience of Music and Why We Love It, Zatorre explores in illuminating detail how and why the brain’s perception of abstract tonal sound patterns leads to the pleasure we experience from music. “The key concept is that the two relevant brain systems—the higher-level perceptual/motor/cognitive system, and the subcortical reward system—are independent but interconnected. Musical pleasure arises because they talk to each other,” says Zatorre. 

One of Zatorre’s most intriguing and important research findings is that the degree of pleasure and the richness of our emotional response to music depends on a balance between predictability and surprise, so that when a musician strikes the unexpected but perfect note, the brain’s dopamine reward centres are activated. “If a musician covers a familiar song and plays it straight, that’s okay. But when a talented musician adds a different chord, riff, twist or other variation that works, the thrill of anticipation is heightened and it creates a more pleasurable response,” he says. 

From Bartók to brain science 

Zatorre’s book is the outcome of what he’s learned about music and the brain since he entered the field in its infancy over four decades ago. Born and raised in Argentina, he wanted to be a scientist from childhood and got into music as a teen, first as a fan of the Beatles, the Doors and the Moody Blues. Zatorre then had an epiphany while listening to a vinyl record of music by Béla Bartók: “…when I first listened to this soft, hypnotic, layered and, in places, relentlessly rhythmic music, I was transfixed: I had chills, palpitations and feelings I couldn’t even describe because I had not experienced them before. I had no idea that music could have such effects,” he writes.  

Zatorre, who is a trained organist, became a competent but not fantastic musician. So, in university, he turned to neuroscience to understand how and why music works the way it does in humans. “I wanted to look at music as a biological and psychological phenomenon. Music is very interesting to study because you can use it to understand a lot of things about the brain in another way: such as hearing, articulation, perception, cognition, the motor system, memory and the reward system,” explains Zatorre, who came to McGill in 1981 to do post-doctoral work in neuropsychology with Brenda Milner (PhD’52, DSc) at The Neuro and was appointed to a faculty position in 1983.  

The first part of the book draws on his own and other neuroscientists’ research to describe the pathways to and from the auditory cortex that generate internal abstractions of musical structure, which then interact with memory, sensory-motor and other cognitive mechanisms that enable perceptual processing and production of music. 

The role of the reward system in musical pleasure 

The second part focuses on (1) the role of the brain’s dopamine reward system and emotions more broadly in music, (2) the links between prediction, surprise and complexity in musical pleasure, and (3) the evolutionary value of music as essential to emotional well-being for cave dwellers and humans today. 

When Zatorre began designing experiments to map and measure musical pleasure in the brain two decades ago, this was uncharted territory. “Neuroscientists were used to studying auditory, perceptual and cognitive mechanisms and processing in music, but they were skeptical about investigating the role of the reward system and emotions in musical pleasure,” he recalls. “It seemed daunting, and we needed to find a way to objectively study the physiological response to music.” 

Zatorre and a post-doctoral student, a drummer in a rock band, devised a novel controlled experiment to compare physiological responses to very different types of music, such as a Bach Brandenburg concerto and a lead guitar solo. They applied a standard psychophysical test that measures skin conductance (the sweat response) using electrodes on the subject’s fingertips.  

“Each volunteer listened to their favourite music and we observed a big peak in skin conductance when they felt chills going down the spine. The test is objective like a lie detector—you can’t fake it unless you’re a psychopath,” he says. “The chills phenomenon was the key to entry for our subsequent studies using psychophysical, functional MRI and brain stimulation techniques to understand and show how abstract sounds can engage the brain’s reward system to generate pleasure and the rich emotional responses we experience to music.”  

Music matters for emotional survival and well-being 

His research was also the first to show that an abstract aesthetic reward, such as highly pleasurable music, activates the striatum, a subcortical brain region where dopamine neurons are also activated by more tangible stimuli such as food, money and sex. “There is more to life than just eating and sex, which are critical for survival of the species,” says Zatorre. “Music is also very rewarding. It has ancient roots in our species and is important for our emotional survival.” 

Indeed, numerous studies have found that music consistently ranks among the top activities described as sources of pleasure and emotional self-regulation, and is one of the most important uses of music on a personal level. “Music evokes emotions that are very difficult to touch with any other art form,” says Zatorre. “If I’ve had a bad day, I’ll listen to soothing music to calm myself. If I’ve had a boring day, I’ll put on lively music.” 

Zatorre believes music has the power to engage and profoundly move us precisely because it combines our cognitive/perceptual system, one of the most advanced parts of the brain that distinguishes us from other species, and the phylogenetically ancient emotion and reward systems, which we share with many other animals. “That’s why music, by virtue of how it enables interactions between these two systems, can somehow feel primal yet depends fundamentally on learning, experience, knowledge and culture,” he says. 

Watch a TEDx talk by Prof. Zatorre









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