Tag Archives: music

A Day Just for Music

Dear family and friends,

Imagine a day in Paris dedicated to music – voilà, Fête de la Musique!

My friends and I decided to first explore the music scene in the Saint Michel-Notre Dame area, one of our favorite parts of Paris (see map below). As soon as we emerged from the underground metro station near the Saint Michel Fountain, we heard a lively cacophony of sounds from every direction. Immediately, my appreciation for jazz music pulled me towards a jazzy trio on Rue Serpente. After they concluded their piece, I felt compelled to keep moving and enjoying as much music as possible. Further along, at the intersection of Rue Serpente with Rue Hautefeuille, we bumped into a crowd of spectators swaying to a soft rock band and our faces instantly brightened with auditory pleasure. Earlier in the day, I felt stressed by schoolwork and my upcoming departure from Paris, but I was beginning to notably relax upon joining the musical festivities.

Fete de la Musique Map

While I was absorbed in the drum rhythms of another music group – I even watched a dance-off between a young girl and a grown man! – I considered the ways in which music was positively impacting my mental state (see image below). But the neuroscientist in me also wondered, what happens at the neurobiological level?

danceoff                                                                        Dance-off

After some internet research, I chose a study by Sheikhi and Saboory examining the impact of musical stimuli on the rat brain, because the study was uniquely conducted during the fetal period. Isn’t that incredible? Previous studies have identified the connection between environmental factors and prenatal development, demonstrating how sensory and motor stimuli entering the central nervous system can lead to neuroplasticity changes in neurons (Mathies et al., 2013). Neuroplasticity refers to changes in neural pathways and synapses. Specifically, stimuli can cause an increase in synaptic connections in the brain (Pirulli et al., 2013). In the fetal brain, other studies have examined the fetal response to music (Gerhardt et al., 2000). In this particular study, Sheikhi and Saboory examined neuroplasticity and neuronal cell density in the parietal cortex (see image below) of the fetal rat brain that was exposed to music as part of a prenatal model.

As part of the methodology, the researchers utilized twelve female Wistar rats (see image below) and followed ethical guidelines established by the Medical Ethics Committee of Iran. (Ethics boards encourage researchers to use the lowest number of rats and cause the least amount of pain possible!) At twelve weeks, the researchers mated the female rats and then divided pregnant rats into a control group and a musical group. Thus, each group included six pregnant rats. Twice per day, from day 2-20 of gestation, researchers exposed the musical group to classical music. However, they did not expose the control group to music. Before labor could occur on the 21st day of gestation, the researchers anesthetized the pregnant rats and collected blood samples from them. Sheikhi and Saboory removed the fetuses and randomly chose one fetus from each mother for brain dissection. Then, the researchers horizontally sliced the parietal cortex and examined the slices via an electron microscope. Returning to the blood samples collected from the pregnant rats, Sheikhi and Saboory measured corticosterone (COS) levels in each blood sample. Corticosterone refers to a hormone secreted by the adrenal cortex in rodents (see image below). COS protects against stress, in a similar way to cortisol in humans.

Wistar rat                                                                        Wistar rat

parietal_lobe                        The parietal cortex is located in the yellow region of this brain.

rat body

                             The adrenal cortex is the outer part of the adrenal gland.

Sheikhi and Saboory found that control rats exhibited simpler and smoother cells, while the music-treated group exhibited a more complex cell membrane and cytoplasmic organelles, which are the specialized structures inside of cells. Alternatively, the intercellular space, or the space between cells, displayed a greater density of structures in music-treated rats than in control rats. To determine the effect of prenatal music on the density of parietal cortical cells, researchers counted the number of nuclei in one electron microscope field, since each cell should theoretically have one nucleus. As expected, researchers found a greater cell density in the parietal cortex of music-treated rats than in control rats. Additionally, prenatal music helped to reduce COS blood levels in pregnant rats. Aha! I bet that a decrease in my cortisol levels is one of the reasons why I felt so relaxed during Fête de la Musique.

I believe the prenatal music model is a unique strength in study design and the findings can be related to an intra-uterine musical effect. However, I would like to offer a few of my own criticisms and suggestions for future experiments. According to the methodology, researchers only collected blood samples on the 21st day of gestation, and then claimed to see a reduction in COS blood levels. However, in order to draw comparisons, the researchers should have collected at least one other blood sample on the 1st day of gestation. Preferably, Sheikhi and Saboory should also have drawn blood from the pregnant rats at various, controlled time points throughout the experiment for stronger comparisons. In this research study, researchers exposed pregnant rats to only classical music, but I wonder if results would change with exposure to different types of music, such as jazz or soft rock. In a future experiment, Sheikhi and Saboory could also test the effect of music on rat infants immediately following birth. Additionally, the researchers only examined the fetal parietal cortex, but should examine other cortical areas as well.

– Beatrice


Gerhardt KJ, Abrams RM (2000) The Fetus Fetal Exposures to Sound and Vibroacoustic Stimulation. Journal of Perinatology 20:S20-S29 Available at: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11190697 [Accessed June 22, 2015].

Matthies U, Balog J, Lehmann K (2013) Temporally coherent visual stimuli boost ocular dominance plasticity. J Neurosci 33:11774–11778 Available at: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23864666 [Accessed June 22, 2015].

Pirulli C, Fertonani A, Miniussi C (2013) The role of timing in the induction of neuromodulation in perceptual learning by transcranial electric stimulation. Brain Stimul 6:683–689 Available at: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23369505 [Accessed June 22, 2015].

Sheikhi S, Ph D, Saboory E, Ph D (2015) Neuroplasticity Changes of Rat Brain by Musical Stimuli during Fetal Period. 16:448–455 [Accessed June 22, 2015].

*I photographed the rock band and drum group, and found the other images through Google Maps and Images.

Blame it on the Music

This past week I got to immerse myself in the most distinctly French experience I’ve had since arriving in Paris – le festival de musique – a festival that’s essentially a giant excuse for everyone in France to leave work early, throw back a few drinks and enjoy music on every street corner, bar, park, and metro station in the city.

It was an amazing day, night, and morning.

There was such a diversity of interesting music – a solo guitarist playing tunes from “dirty dancing” to a bunch of kids, two dueling DJs (the one with a portable smoke machine won), a couple of Rastafarian reggae singers on the RER train, and even a man playing a collection of giant bells on truck bed outside Notre Dame. Just as interesting was the diversity of behavior amongst those listening to the music, specifically their drinking behavior.

Being the upstanding, responsible, academic individual that I am, I used my scientific observation abilities to hone in on the type and amount of alcohol being consumed by the groups listening to each genre of music. I then used this data to make educated decisions about which music attracted the most degenerate groups so that I could join them avoid them. 

NBB students enjoying the portable smoke machine.

Most of the Parisians seamed to be keeping their drinking in check. Those listening to the blues street musicians were sipping on wine and beer, the large group around the truck-bell musician was doing the same, and not surprisingly, the kids surrounding the solo-guitarist weren’t tossing back too many brews. The dueling DJs were a different matter though, and I had to unfortunately dedicate more time there to document the significantly larger quantities of wine consumed by the audience – at one point I even saw a flask and a mini-keg!

I witnessed the most alcohol consumption later that night though, when I followed the deep boom of a bass to a large dubstep-rave outside the Odeon metro station. As I approached the mass of people jumping in synchrony to the deafening music it quickly became apparent that these festival-goers had traded their wine for many liters of flavored vodka.

This sparked my curiosity, why were some groups heavier drinkers than others? Was there something about dubstep and the DJ-house music that caused those listening to drink more? There was a significantly higher percentage of young people at the rave but that doesn’t necessarily account for why they were drinking hard alcohol while the college-aged kids elsewhere were drinking beer and wine. I needed to do some research.
The Effect of Noise on Taste 

The truck bell choir. Definitely the most interesting instrument of the night!

In 2011, an article published in the journal Food Quality and Preference, looked at the effect of music and noise on how 80 college-aged individuals perceived the taste of alcohol (Stafford et al., 2012).

The study was pretty simple. When each participant entered the lab they were blindfolded and given a set of four different solutions (bitter, sour, sweet, and salty) to taste so that they had a baseline to compare against for the rest of the experiment. The students then put on headphones and were divided into four groups. One group had house music played in both ears, another had a news article being read in both ears, a third had music playing in one ear and the article in the other, and a fourth heard neither noise. The members of each group were then given alcohol of varying concentrations (with mixers) and asked to rate the level of sweet/bitter/sour/salty taste and overall strength of the alcohol in each drink (on a scale of 1-100).

Before we evaluate the results it’s important to first think about how the researchers controlled for external factors that might affect the data (like different alcohol preferences in the subjects, mood at the time of the study, type of music they normally listen to, etc.). It appears that the researchers did account for most of these issues, and they chose students with standard alcohol habits, no known taste aversions, and who were in average moods. They also chose the music genre and alcohol mixers based off of an initial study of the preferences of ten students. However, it would have been great to see the house music compared to other genres like jazz and country to make sure that the data wasn’t genre-dependent.

The results showed that those listening to music in both ears actually found the alcoholic drinks significantly sweater than the other three groups. Additionally, the ability to discern between the different strengths of alcohol was significantly lower in the music/news and only-music individuals than the other two groups, a result that has been shown in other papers (Seo et al., 2012). The fact that music only appeared to effect sweetness perception and none of the other three tastes is especially interesting because on average, the sweater alcohol, the more it gets consumed (Lanier et al., 2005). 

How does this all occur in the brain?

Location of Odeon rave!

There are very few articles that show how music affects taste perception in the brain. One thing that is somewhat similar is a process known as sensory deprivation. In sensory deprivation, one sense in eliminated and because of that another sense gets stronger. A perfect example of this would be how blind individuals often have a very good sense of touch. It’s been shown that the louder a noise the more it inhibits a person’s ability to distinguish taste (Woods et al., 2011). The music at the rave was much louder than anything I had heard at the festival, so maybe the reverse of sensory deprivation was occurring. Perhaps the Parisians’ sensory systems were so over-stimulated by the loud music that they were less able to perceive the alcohol concentration, leading to the consumption of more and harder alcohol. Additionally, the music might have made the vodka taste sweeter, making it even easier to drink. This is primarily speculation though, and lack of concluding evidence makes it difficult to know exactly what was happening in the brain. Perhaps I will have to conduct a research study of my own to determine the regions of the brain involved, as well as the effect of different music genres on alcohol perception. I wonder if any Emory students would volunteer for such a tasking experiment!


– Camden MacDowell


Works Cited

Lanier, S. A., Hayes, J. E., & Duffy, V. B. (2005). Sweet and bitter tastes of alcoholic beverages mediate alcohol intake in of-age undergraduates. Physiology &Behavior, 83(5), 821–831.

Stafford L., Agobiani E., Fernandes M. (2012). Effects of noise and distraction on alcohol perception. Food Quality and Preference 24: 218-224

Seo H., Hahner A., Gudziol V., Scheibe M., Hummel T. (2012). Influence of background noise on the performance in the odor sensitivity task: effects of noise type and extraversion. Exp Brain Res 222:89-97

Woods, A. T., Poliakoff, E., Lloyd, D. M., Kuenzel, J., Hodson, R., Gonda, H., et al.(2011). Effect of background noise on food perception. Food Quality and Preference 22(1), 42-47 

Put on Your Dancing Shoes

Last Friday, we had the incredible opportunity to be a part of Paris’ Fête de la Musique, a celebration of music in all its forms. Starting in the evening and lasting well into the next morning, the festival brings thousands of musicians to hundreds of bars, clubs, courtyards, and street corners in all twenty of the arrondissements of the city. Everyone crowds the streets to celebrate, and there is music wherever you turn; oftentimes musicians are so close that you can actually hear multiple performances simultaneously. As the night went on, we found ourselves immersed in an environment filled with new friends, loud music, and lots of dancing. We danced alongside the Parisians to club electronica, gritty rock, solo vocals, drum circles, and even American pop. The instinct to move in synchrony with the music was not only consistent across genres, but also ubiquitous among individuals. This final post of our trip aims to explore the profound and fascinating link between dancing and music.

Venues for Fête de la Musique 2013. A better question: where isn't there music?

One prominent theory to explain movement coordinated with music suggests that this type of synchronized movement simulates music production itself, which may have evolved as a method of social bonding (Levitin and Tirovolas, 2009). The importance of music as a type of honest, yet generalized, form of communication may have lead to activation of reward systems in the brain upon not only personal production of music, but imitating the production of music present in the environment. I personally tend to disagree with this hypothesis. Though I find actual production of music to be the most enjoyable of all, I do not necessarily feel that fingering along accurately to a piano lick is any more rewarding than flailing my entire body to the beat. Though my own personal experiences prove nothing, this theory of pleasure being derived from musical imitation tends to draw skepticism in literature on the topic, as it is not even clear that music is an evolutionary adaptation in the first place.

One of the festival's larger venues.

More recent research, however, takes a different approach to the question. Testing of both musicians and non-musicians suggests that moving to a beat actually enhances perception of the metrical structure (Su and Pöppel, 2012). The experiment that demonstrated this was actually fairly straightforward. Test subjects listened to rhythmic excerpts that maintained a constant tempo throughout and were instructed either to move to the music (e.g. foot-tapping, head-nodding, or body-swaying) or were told to sit still while they listened. Participants were also told to indicate what they felt to be the beat of the music by tapping their finger on the table in front of them. Once the music began, the researchers would occasionally silence the music at random on key beats, though subjects were instructed to continue tapping during these “dropped” beats. The accuracy of the placement of the dropped beat and overall consistency of tapping throughout the sequence were measured and compared between test groups, and researchers found significant improvements in both measures when the subjects were moving versus remaining still. Interestingly, this finding held true regardless of what the consistent tempo was. Whether at 60 beats per minute (the tempo of a very slow ballad) or at 210 bpm (well above the vast majority of music), synchronized movement enhanced understanding of the rhythmic structure.

Further characterization of movement-induced enhancement of beat perception found that this effect is only true of auditory stimuli, and in fact, movement impairs timing extraction in equivalent visual tasks (Iordanescu et al., 2013). This finding implies that synchronized movement may somehow bear a particularly special connection to our interpretation of sound. Could the fun of dancing arise from its ability to increase our sensitivity to rhythmic patterns? That may be what the research suggests. From soon after birth, humans have an innate desire for information and, quickly thereafter, an insatiable need to categorize (Perlovsky, 2010). This ability and, in fact, craving to classify our world has been referred to as the “knowledge instinct,” and this may explain why we so readily appreciate a more intensified and obvious pattern in our aural environment.

All of the rhetorical questions, personal musings, and references to psychological theory in this post are a testament to the real conclusion to this discussion: nobody actually knows why we like dancing so much. Indirect experiments and conveniently intuitive theories of selective pressure can only provide so much insight into the issue; so while science works on solving this highly urgent question, just enjoy the music and keep on dancing.

Dancing (if you can call it that) in Homo sapiens.


-Max Farina



Iordanescu L, Grabowecky M, Suzuki S (2013) Action enhances auditory but not visual temporal sensitivity. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review 20: 108-114.

Levitin DJ, Tirovolas AK (2009) Current advances in the cognitive neuroscience of music. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 1156: 211-231.

Perlovsky L (2010) Musical emotions: functions, origins, evolution. Physics of Life Reviews 7: 2-27.

Su YH, Pöppel E (2012) Body movement enhances the extraction of temporal structures in auditory sequences. Psychological Research 76: 373-382.

Confession of a Paris Rookie: I love métro music.

Dear Paris, 

We’ve only known each other for two weeks, and this is definitely going to sound cheesy. Here’s my confession. I am afraid I am already madly in love with you. Everything about you is perfect: the baguettes, wines, € 0.40 espresso, the countless museums and the dirty crowded métro. 

the metro

the train carrying too many people in the métro

Yes, I even love the dirty crowded métro that sometimes feels like a slaughterhouse, especially on Monday mornings. Regardless, the métro is the backbone to your existence, one part connecting to another. Occasionally, I find the true gem of the métro– the musicians. The metro musicians must audition to earn their stage. The RATP, the company that runs the métro, holds biannual auditions looking for talented musicians every year. Just today, I had the pleasure of listening to the happy and carefree accordion player when I, along with the rest of the NBB crew, nonchalantly landed on the wrong train.

jolly accordion man                                                                          (click to watch!)

So far I have seen the guitarists, violinists, an opera singer, and an accordion player, but regardless of the genre, I lose myself in the sudden rush of happiness when listening to these metro certified musicians.

In addition to the pure bliss, I quickly recall my street musicians days playing with my string quartet, thus making the experience more meaningful and emotional. One recent neuroscience study stated that there is a release of dopamine (the happy brain chemical that is also released during sex and food) in the striatum (the reward network in the brain) during the emotional experience of music (Salimpoor 2011). So this pleasure I get from music is not only attributed to the melodious tunes of the musicians but also the emotions they elicit. Additionally, the level of pleasure, measured by quantifying the dopamine release, is positively correlated to the emotional arousal (Salimpoor 2009). This may also explain why other métro travelers remain immune to this fleeting euphoria that I experience.

Then I started wondering how my musical history affected my brain. I have been playing the viola for ten years, performing at various centers, halls, weddings, parties and of course, the streets. What kind of brain changes could I have self-induced? Luckily, I was able to find a study that explored this exact question. A group of researchers in a collaborative study among McGill University, Mouse Imaging Centre, Boston College, and Harvard medical school recently published the study on how musical training shapes structural brain development of children. Because many studies have previously looked at the effect of music in the adult brain, this study distinguishes itself in not only in its exploration in the developing brain but also in relating these biological changes to behaviors (Hyde 2009).

In this study, 31 children around the age of 6 with no previous musical background participated. In the instrumental group, 15 children went through weekly half hour private keyboard lessons for 15 months, while the control group participated in a weekly general group music class in public school (Hyde 2009). To measure and assess the structural changes in the brain, the 31 children underwent an MRI scan, which is a tool that allows one to visualize the brain. There were two behavioral tests. One was a simple motor sequencing task, which is where the children press a particular number sequence that corresponds to finger 2-5. (2= index finger and 5=pinkie finger.) The second behavioral test was a melodic and rhythmic discrimination test where the children heard pairs of tunes to indicate if they were the same or different. In order to see how the instrumental training affected the children’s brain and behavior, they were tested before and after the 15 month period.

The results? Compared to the control group, the instrumental group showed bigger primary motor area, corpus callosum (the tissue that connects the left and right hemisphere of the brain), and primary auditory area. These structural differences also paralleled the behavior changes. The children in the instrumental group consistently performed better in the motor and the tune discrimination task. Basically, the children in the instrumental group demonstrated greater brain changes that greatly enhanced the way they used their fingers for motor functions and their ears to detect differences.

Although this study only looked at young children, music does not discriminate ages and benefits all! I am now starting to wonder how pervasive and practical music therapy is in the field of neuroscience…. but for now, I need some personal music therapy aka YouTubing French artists. Au revoir!

-Sehe Han the Paris rookie


Hyde, KL, Lerch J, Norton A, Forgeard M, Winner E, Evans AC, Schlaug, G. (2009). Musical training shapes structural brain development. The Journal of Neuroscience29: 3019-3025.

Salimpoor VN, Benovoy M, Larcher K, Dagher A, Zatorre RJ (2011). Anatomically distinct dopamine release during anticipation and experience of peak emotion to music. Nature neuroscience, 14: 257-262.

Salimpoor VN, Benovoy M, Longo G, Cooperstock JR, Zatorre RJ (2009). The rewarding aspects of music listening are related to degree of emotional arousal. PloS one, 4(10), e7487.


Baroque Music at Sainte Chapelle


Last week, we took a group trip to Sainte Chapelle, a Gothic church in the heart of Paris. Though many visit the church to admire the magnificent collection of 13th century stained glass and extensive collection of Christian relics, we were there to hear an authentic Baroque music concert. Much of the hour-long concert featured a trio of harpsichord, violin, and recorder, but at one point, the recorder player took a solo and switched from playing the soprano version of the instrument to the higher-pitched sopranino. After the recorder player began his solo on the stage, he proceeded to wander throughout the entire chapel—through the audience, along the walls of the chapel, and at one point even directly behind the seating area.

When I said "heart of Paris," I meant it.

As the soloist walked around far behind me, I noticed that I was able to identify where the sound was coming from even though I was facing the opposite direction. I immediately remembered a lecture from neurobiology class that covered the neural mechanisms involved in sound localization. The process depends on the fact that our brain has the ability to compare inputs from both ears. When sound emanates from a source, it usually is not exactly the same distance away from each ear, so when the sound reaches both ears, the difference is calculated and converted into an angle to the direction of the sound (Grothe, 2003). Oftentimes, the difference between arrival at each ear can be as little as 10 microseconds (that’s 1/100,000th of a second)!. This calculation of interaural time difference (ITD) occurs in the medial superior olive, a collection of cells in the brainstem.

Basis of interaural time difference

I was curious, though, if the same process was taking place during the concert. I remembered that the ITD calculations are particularly effective for low frequency sounds, certainly lower than the high-pitched sopranino recorder (Devore and Delguette, 2010). Additionally, I imagined that the tall ceiling and compartmentalized roof, typical of Gothic architecture, would create echoes that further complicate the use of ITD to localize sound. I looked into the matter, and found an article that attempted to explore how the brain’s ability to localize sound is affected by reverberation (Devore and Delguette, 2010). The researchers thought that the lateral superior olive, which uses interaural level difference (ILD) to localize sound rather than ITD, would be preferentially involved in sounds distorted by reverberation. In order to test this hypothesis, the experimenters used a technique called in-vivo electrophysiology, which places a collection of small recording electrodes into the brain and is able to isolate activity from single brain cells in awake, behaving subjects. Once the electrodes were in place, the subjects (in this case, rabbits) were exposed to a variety of auditory stimuli. The stimuli varied in direction, pitch, and reverberant nature so that the researchers could determine which pathways were in use in different situations. They found that the brain relies more heavily on ILD than ITD in reverberant situations, particularly for high-frequency pitches.

Beautiful? Yes. Reverberant? Absolutely.

While researching sound localization, I stumbled across another article that I found to be particularly interesting. I have always been amazed by conductors’ abilities to identify a single individual who misses a note in a 70-person ensemble. Researchers found that the constant exposure to wide field multi source sound environments experienced by conductors actually changes the way that conductors’ brains process the information (Münte et al., 2001). Not surprisingly, conductors outperformed both non-musical controls and pianists in accuracy of sound localization, but interestingly, recordings of brain activity during the task revealed that all groups utilized identical regions of the brain. This finding led the researchers to suggest that the intensive training and exposure that conductors receive simply trains their brain to more effectively use the sound localization pathways that we all use everyday. Take home message: the phrase “mental exercise” has a good deal of validity to it.

 – Max Farina


Works Cited:

Devore S, Delguette B (2010) Effects of reverberation on the directional sensitivity of auditory neurons across the tonotopic axis: influences of interaural time and level differences. Journal of Neuroscience 30: 7826-7837.

Grothe B (2003) New roles for synaptic inhibition in sound localization. Nature Reviews Neuroscience 4: 540-550.

Münte TF, Kohlmetz C, Nager W, Altenmüller E (2001) Neuroperception: Superior auditory spatial tuning in conductors. Nature 409.

Music at Notre Dame

Before coming to Paris, there was one trip I knew I absolutely wanted to make: a visit Notre Dame. I spent the previous spring semester reading a few pages every night of Victor Hugo’s unabridged Hunchback of Notre Dame, and I was hooked. Of course the hunchbacked madly-in-love Quasimodo didn’t exist, nor did the dashing dusky beauty Esmeralda or the creepily obsessive Frollo, but still the book stirred a deep interest in visiting the ancient cathedral. I yearned to visit the chiseled stone, to see the spires where Quasimodo was fabled to have climbed, to roam the streets that Esmeralda looked down upon from her cage in the towers. Notre Dame had a fairy tale appeal, except unlike in fantasies, this one is real, and it was waiting for me.
Unfortunately the church wasn’t on our list of scheduled sites, so I just had to go visit it on my own. After class one day, a few friends and I took the metro over to bask in the ambience of Notre Dame. It’s in the heart of Paris, situated on a small island called Île de la Cité, or ‘Island of the City,’ surrounded by the river Seine. A screenshot of Google Maps below will help draw the picture (‘A’ is Notre Dame):
Crossing the river, my jaw dropped as my eyes flew up—I could finally see the renowned towers with my very own eyes!

The building was enormous, and of course stunning. Above and around the ornate doors were statues representing biblical images in breathtaking detail.

The line to enter was extremely long, and we had plans later that evening, so we decided to take a stroll around the church instead. Just as we turned the corner, we saw a young man walk up the sidewalk with a giant instrument case. He sat on a folding stool and pulled out stringed instrument resembling a cross between a lyre and a guitar. What happened next blew me away: he began plucking his instrument, and melodious music filled with the regality and crispness of the Renaissance period flooded the street.

Hopefully the link below works…it may take a second to load.

Click here to watch him perform!

I felt a wave of relief pass over me, like nothing in this world could deter my peace at that moment. All of my worries and problems seemed to melt away in the little time I stood there, listening to him play music from the past. Overhead loomed the elegant spires of Notre Dame, and the combination of church and music was unreal. I couldn’t leave without giving him some change, knowing all too well that the amount I spared can never match the amount of joy he gave.

Researching our body’s response to music, I realized why I felt so much happiness just standing there listening to the musician. A study by Salimpoor et al. focused on dopamine, a chemical sent between nerve cells in the brain that is involved with experiencing pleasure (2011). Previous research has shown that dopamine is released in a region of the brain called the mesolimbic system, which is involved in motivation and feelings of reward (Schott et al., 2008). Humans gain pleasure not only from eating food and social interaction, things necessary for survival of prehistoric mankind, but also from “abstract stimuli, such as music and art” (Salimpoor et al., 2011).
This study tried to determine the role of dopamine released during “moments of extreme pleasure,” in this case listening to music. The downside is that pleasure is hard to quantify. To overcome this issue, the researchers looked at the bodily changes accompanying pleasurable sensations, like the “chills” that people feel when listening to certain types of music. The good kind of course, not the creepy kind. To get these chills, participants in the experiment listened to music that they liked. Chills can elicit changes in heart rate, breathing rate, and body temperature. By studying these changes, researchers can thus use an objective phenomenon (chills) to describe a subjective experience (pleasure). Lastly, to record dopamine release, the researchers used positron emission tomography (PET) scans, a lab technique that basically images the brain using radiographic tracers.
Enough of the background stuff, let’s get into the real experiment. Participants either listened to neutral music, or music they liked. They also gave subjective responses to their chills, like the number of times they occurred and how intense they felt.  Compared to those that listened to neutral music, the participants that listened to music they liked felt more pleasure, and thus had more chills. The chills were also shown by bodily changes, including an increase in heart rate and breathing rate and a drop in body temperature. The PET scans depict an increase in the amount of dopamine sent between cells in the mesolimbic system. Thus, Salimpoor’s research concludes that dopamine release is associated with the pleasurable sensation of listening to music, which causes a feeling of pleasure and chills.
Now I see why I felt those chills when I stood there at Notre Dame that day. The music caused a release of dopamine in my brain, giving me the sensation of pleasure so that I could enjoy the experience for as long as I was there. The chills are just the byproduct of that pleasure, so that I realize just how much I like the music. Hopefully I can go visit Notre Dame again one day. If I do, I hope that the musician is there again—I’m ready for some more dopamine release with the sound of his out-of-this-world music!
-Mayur Patel

Salimpoor V, Benovoy M, Larcher K, Dagher A, Zatorre R (2011) Anatomically distinct dopamine release during anticipation and experience of peak emotion to music. Nature Neuroscience 14: 257-262
Schott B, Minuzzi L, Krebs R, Elmenhorst D, Lang M, Winz O, Seidenbecher C, Coenen H, Heinze H, Zilles K, Duzel E, Bauer A (2008) Mesolimbic Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging Activations during Reward Anticipation Correlate with Reward-Related Ventral Striatal Dopamine Release. The Journal of Neuroscience 28: 14211-14319