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New Music Tickles or Bores Brain Region

Listeners' reactions to new music were associated with activity in the nucleus accumbens, a section of the brain's pleasure center. Sophie Bushwick reports

When you hear an unfamiliar tune, how do you wind up either tapping your foot or plugging your ears? A study finds that a specific brain region gives the song a thumbs up or down. The research is in the journal Science. [Valorie N. Salimpoor et al., Interactions Between the Nucleus Accumbens and Auditory Cortices Predict Music Reward Value]

As 19 subjects listened to samples of unfamiliar songs, their brains were scanned with a functional MRI machine. After hearing each clip, the subjects could bid between zero and two dollars to purchase the song. And the values participants assigned to songs were associated with activity in the nucleus accumbens, a section of the brain's pleasure center. For more popular tunes, this region was more active and communicated more with the brain region that stores auditory information.

The scientists think the nucleus accumbens, which helps set expectations, draws on stored musical knowledge to predict how a new tune will play out. When the music fulfills or even exceeds these expectations, the listener feels rewarded. So your listening history helps determine whether you’ll like a new song—or tell it to hit the road.

—Sophie Bushwick

[The above text is a transcript of this podcast.]

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