Finding yourself addicted to Chance the Rapper’s station on Spotify? Or Solange’s new single? There’s a reason certain songs keep us coming back for more: Neuroscientists who study music’s effect on our brain have discovered that dopamine, the feel-good chemical released during substance use, exercise, and sex, also tends to spike before and after climactic moments in songs.
“Dopamine release happens as a function of expectations. In music, we’re constantly going back and forth between tension and release,” says Susan Rogers, Ph.D., the director of the Berklee Music Perception and Cognition Laboratory in Boston (and Prince’s former sound engineer!). She explains that as songs grow in anticipation, such as a rock song that crescendos before the chorus, “we’ll build up tension until we have that breakdown, and that feels great.” When these things happen, your body releases dopamine and you feel a natural dose of pleasure. That’s why the right song can shake you out of your bad mood. This can happen with a song you’ve just heard or an old favorite.
It doesn’t have a to be a wildly dynamic song, either. Just think about the best part of one of your favorite songs: Chances are it’s an unexpected chord change, a breakdown, or the second the singer hits a high note. “[Those moments can] release just a little bit of dopamine, because they’re exciting,” says Dr. Rogers.
So if music has access to your emotional switchboard, what should you be playing? It’s different for everyone, says Dr. Rogers. For example, risk-takers tend to like more avant-garde music, while those who don’t want more challenging stimuli will listen to something that doesn’t require them to pay much attention (perhaps pop music or classic country). Of course, this is all individual: Personality traits, age, culture, and other factors come into play.
Music’s influence over our minds doesn’t end with a chemical rush, says Dr. Rogers. The artists we listen to during adolescence, when our brains are still forming, are especially powerful. “We know that humans tend to bond to music in our teens,” says Dr. Rogers. Music, she says, “can be our buddy.” Like a person, we bond to it and look to the music — and people behind it — for guidance.
“When we’re teenagers, songs can help us solve problems,” adds Dr. Rogers. We put on our headphones and suddenly we have a private coach. “Lyrics tell us how to behave, like, ‘Here’s what you should have said to that guy,’ or ‘Here’s how you should be putting yourself out into the world.’”
While we may outgrow certain bands, “we feel warmly and think fondly of certain bands who were our ‘friends’ during high school or early college years,” says Dr. Rogers. It’s not sentimentality; it’s science: The neural connectivity in our brains “hardens” by the time we’re in our mid-20s. Don’t be alarmed: You’ll still be able to enjoy new things, but there’s a good chance your general tastes — even worldview — may have taken shape. Download responsibly.