Music Tickles the Same Brain System As Sex and Drugs

David Bowie: Pleasure seeker, pleasure creator. Photo: Bob King/Redferns

When British singer Ian Dury released the single “Sex & Drugs & Rock ‘n’ Roll” in 1977, the punk rocker must have had some intuition about the reward systems of the brain. Because, as shown in a new study in Scientific Reports, musical pleasure uses the brain’s self-made opioids, same as having sex, eating, or doing recreational drugs.

The neuroscientists who conducted the study were led by Adiel Mallik from McGill University in Canada. They recruited 21 college students, promised them $100 for their time, and asked them to bring two songs they were really into. Half of the participants took naltrexone, a drug used to treat addiction that blocks opioid receptors, thereby reducing positive and negative emotions. The other half took a placebo.

The participants listened to their self-selected tracks, as well as two emotionally neutral songs, as selected by the experimenters. The subjects were observed physiologically — like by how active the frown or smile muscles in their face were — and subjectively, rating their enjoyment by a little slider device attached to a computer. The researchers found that taking the drug reduced both measures of enjoyment, with a bigger reduction happening on the songs listeners brought with them — which makes sense, since there’s more emotion to be reduced. Taken together, these results suggest that opioids are driving the pleasure of musical listening, which the authors say is a novel finding.

This also sheds light onto why music shows up in every known culture. “The fact that music listening triggers a well-defined neurochemical response suggests an evolutionary origin for music,” the authors write, with the caveat that you shouldn’t over-interpret the results. “[I]t is also possible that music has developed to exploit an already existing reward system that evolved for other purposes, such as recognizing and responding appropriately to various human and animal vocalizations,” they add. Like the saying goes, one species’ howl is another’s bass drop.

Music Tickles the Same Brain System As Sex and Drugs