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Dr. Valorie Salimpoor – The Brain and New Music

In today’s Academic Minute, Dr. Valorie Salimpoor of the Rotman Research Institute explains the neurology behind the human love of music. 

Valorie Salimpoor is a postdoctoral research fellow at the Rotman Research Institute / Baycrest Centre in Toronto where her research interests include neuroeconomics and neuroaesthetics. She has published a number of peer-reviewed papers on the neurological basis for musical enjoyment. She holds a Ph.D. from McGill University.

About Dr. Salimpoor

Dr. Valorie Salimpoor – The Brain and New Music

In every single culture as far back as history has been recorded people have enjoyed music.  It has somehow remained an important source of pleasure for humans, despite any clear survival value.  Why is music so pleasurable?

In one study we found that when people listen to intensely emotional music they actually release dopamine in deep subcortical circuits that are phylogenetically ancient and have evolved to reinforce highly adaptive behaviour like eating and sex.  Interestingly, people not only release dopamine at the peak pleasure moments in music, but also in anticipation of these moments.  This makes sense when we think about the important role that anticipation plays in music appreciation.  Music is really just a sequence of sounds organized into patterns over time.  The temporal unfolding of sounds lead to the creation of expectancies, and their violation, confirmation, or delay of resolution, can lead to emotional arousal. But what if you are not familiar with the music; what are you anticipating? 

In a recent study, we created a mock iTunes environment inside the scanner where people listened to previously unheard music that was recommended for them with a chance to purchase the music with their own money.  We found that liking new music activates the parts of the brain involved in forming expectations and coding their accuracy, in combination with areas involved in pattern recognition and high-level structuring of information, and areas involved in storing templates of all of the music they have heard in the past.  These templates are different for each individual and shaped by styles and genres of music they have listened to in the past.  This helps explain why different people have different tastes in music.  

These findings suggest that music is an intellectual reward, based on integration of some of the most advanced and highly evolved parts of our brain involved in complex pattern recognition with deep subcortical pleasure centres that we share with many other animals.


Production support for the Academic Minute comes from Newman’s Own, giving all profits to charity and pursuing the common good for over 30 years, and from Mount Holyoke College.

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