I ditched my career as a music journalist in May of 2012, leaving a job at a now-defunct East Coast alt-weekly newspaper for, well, being a science writer. For the next year or so, I barely listened to music at all. I didn’t seek out new music, shop for records, or go to shows. None of it did anything for me. It was like eating food without flavor, offering less sensory thrill than a glass of Soylent.
I could blame the job. Aesthetic burn-out. But I was also wicked depressed, and, in truth, there wasn’t a whole lot that was doing anything for me in that year flavor-wise. It’s part of the whole depression package, a profound disinterest in the world—an inability to experience pleasure in things once pleasurable. The technical term for it is anhedonia.
I offer this as a way of demonstrating that our experience of music is more subjective than I think most people realize. See, for example, a study published this week in Nature Human Behavior describing the effects of transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) on how people experience music. Basically, it’s possible to make people feel music more by exciting their brains with magnets.
“The hedonic impact of music listening is driven by its intrinsic ability to change emotional arousal,” the study notes. “Several music theorists have suggested that the emotions evoked by
music may arise, among other aspects, from structural and temporal features of music, such as anticipation and expectancy.”
In other words, musical pleasure has a lot to do with expectation and validation. That’s part of why we like patterns and repetition within songs and among songs. The parts of the brain responsible for picking up these patterns are the same that are responsible for things like working memory and what’s known as predictive coding, which is the process by which the brain is constantly generating and testing hypotheses about future sensory input.
It’s a survival/evolutionary thing: If I can predict a future sensation, then I can stay one step ahead of doom and/or potential food sources. Naturally, the brain has a built in reward mechanism for making good sensory predictions. Ergo, evolution explains pop music. Sort of.
Anyhow, the researchers here thought that if they could “turn up” the parts of the brain that are doing this predictive coding, then that would have an effect on how people experience music. “Our results show that perceived pleasure, psychophysiological measures of emotional arousal, and the monetary value assigned to music, are all significantly increased by exciting fronto-striatal pathways,” the paper concludes, “whereas inhibition of this system leads to decreases in all of these variables compared with sham stimulation.”
In TMS, a magnetic coil is placed against a patient’s scalp, delivering a painless magnetic pulse to a target region of the brain. There are different protocols for increasing brain activity and decreasing it using this technique. Both were tested in this study, as well as “sham” TMS sessions, in which no stimulation is provided at all. In excitatory TMS sessions, participants reported music being up to 20 percent more pleasurable compared to sham TMS sessions. Similarly, inhibitory TMS sessions “turned down” music responses up to 20 percent.
Worth noting is that TMS is finding some success is treating depression, which makes even more sense within the context of my experience described above. So, we might well consider this to be indirect support to what’s still kind of a fringe depression therapy.