Scientists share the science behind why music captivates us

It helps release dopamine and deal with loneliness.
Loukia Papadopoulos
Representational image of a concert.jpg
Representational image of a concert.


In a report by NPR published Saturday by Rob Stein, several scientists shared their views on why music captivates people to such a degree. Although no one knew the exact reasons, music is still a mystery after all, the theories brought forward were interesting.

"Music does evoke a sense of wonder and awe for lots of people," told the news outlet Daniel Levitin, a neuroscientist at McGill University who scans the brains of people while they listen to tunes.

Still a mystery

"Some of it is still mysterious to us," he added, "But what we can talk about are some neural circuits or networks involved in the experience of pleasure and reward."

He further noted that listening to music activates brain circuits in the amygdala, the ventral tegmental area and the nucleus accumbens, the same areas that get triggered if you're thirsty and you have a drink, or if you're feeling "randy and have sex."

"It modulates levels of dopamine, as well as opioids in the brain. Your brain makes opioids," he explained.

Music even allows you to feel connected to others by firing neurons in the brain in line with the beat of the tune.

"What we used to say in the '60s is, 'Hey, I'm on the same wavelength as you man,'" Levitin said. "But it's literally true — your brain waves are synchronized listening to music."

Add to that experience a bit of dancing with other people and you have a pretty powerful phenomenon.

"Those pathways of changing our body, symbolizing what is vast and mysterious for us, and then moving our bodies, triggers the mind into a state of wonder," Dacher Keltner, a University of California, Berkeley, psychologist, further told NPR.

"We imagine, 'Why do I feel this way? What is this music teaching me about what is vast and mysterious?' Music allows us to feel these transcendent emotions," he added.

Dealing with loneliness

He further noted that music could help people deal with “the epidemic of our times, which is loneliness.” "With music, we feel we're part of a community and that has a direct effect on health and well-being," said Keltner.

Stein then reached out to musician Mike Gordon, the bass player for the band Phish, to find out if any of these theories resonated with him.

 "Yeah, I definitely experience wonder while playing music on a regular basis," he replied.  

"It's almost like these neural pathways are opening. And it's almost like the air around me crystalizes where everything around me is more itself," Gordon added. "I develop this sort of hypersensitivity, where it's now electrified."