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Do We Consume Music More, Enjoy It Less?

Scientists say that our brain reacts to great music similar to way it reacts to sex.

In both of these situations, the experience of pleasure that we have is mediated by the release of the brain’s reward chemical, dopamine. This finding is based on the results of experiments done by analyst Valorie Salimpoor of McGill University in Montreal, Canada.

Music produces an intellectual reward, because the listener has to follow the sequence of notes to appreciate it. For the study, the participants were asked to choose instrumental pieces of music that gave them goosebumps. Lyrics were banned, so the associations the participants might have to the words in the music didn’t confound the final results.

Songs couldn’t have specific memories attached either.

While listening to their chosen music, Salimpoor’s team measured things like heart rate and increases in respiration and sweating. During these listening sessions, a 6-9% relative increase in their dopamine levels was detected in participates when compared to a control condition in which participants had listened to each other’s music selections.

How does this dopamine increase compare to other activities?

In prior studies with cocaine, Salimpoor reported that relative dopamine increases in the brain had been above 22%. While eating a pleasurable meal, a relative increase of 6% was experienced by participants. So, in other words, listening to your favorite song is a lot like eating a cheese and Portobello-stuffed burger. This finding reminds me of a blog post written by science journalist Jonah Lehrer. He made a great argument about why making dinner is a good idea. Ever since reading his piece, I’ve wondered if it applied to music.

Delicious Music

These days, more people are listening to more music now than ever before. Why?

Well, as we’ve learned from the study above, it’s in part, because we find the experience pleasurable. We’re dopamine fiends. Also, due to devices like the iPod, it’s now possible to listen to our music everywhere – at all times. Technology has made it possible to carry our entire music collection with us and we like to indulge ourselves with their contents.

Like a delicious meal, music rewards us. Like music, food is easier to access too.

Studies have found that how much the food we consume is correlated with the effort we exert to get it. In one experiment, Lehrer writes, “Mice were trained to push levers to get one of two rewards. If they pressed lever A, they got a delicious drop of sugar water. If they pressed lever B, they got a different tasting drop of sugar water.” Overtime, the scientists started to mess with the mice by gradually increasing the amount of effort required to get one of the sweet water drops. The mice only had to press the lever one time to get the sugar water at the start of the study. But, by the end, they had to press the lever 15 times.

“Here’s where things get interesting: When the test was over and the mice were allowed to relax in their home cage, they showed an overwhelming preference for whichever reward they’d worked harder to obtain,” Lehrer says. “More lever presses led to tastier water.” In the paper, the scientists conclude that the reason why such an effect might exist is because back when calories were scarce, humans had to work hard to obtain less than desirable food. This means that in times when food was hard to come by and people had to increase their foraging efforts in order to get it, the added effort would cause them to enjoy their findings more. Dinner may have been disgusting, but they had to like it or die.

Similarly, due to the added effort, fans may prefer vinyl records to MP3s.

Gluttony Revisited

Next, Lehrer brings up a paper by economists David Cutler, Edward Glaeser and Jesse Shapiro called “Why Have Americans Become More Obese?”.

“They argue that the rise in the weight of the average American in recent decades has been largely caused by a technological shift in food production, which allows us to cook calories with ever increasing ease,” Lehrer writes. “Why do the microwave and frozen dinner inexorably lead to obesity? According to the economists, the cheapness of calories (both in terms of price and time) has led us to dramatically boost consumption. Food stops being something we make and create — it doesn’t require very many lever presses, so to speak — and becomes something we simply ingest. Eating just gets easier.”

And guess what? We get fatter. Unhealthy food is often the easiest to prepare.

“But maybe we’re not just consuming more calories because they’re available at such a low cost. Maybe we’re also consuming more calories because each calorie gives us less pleasure,” Lehrer adds. “The lesson of those lever-pressing mice, after all, is that when we don’t work for our food — when it only requires a single press, or a few whirls of the microwave — it tastes much less delicious.” This hypothesis of his brings us to one last study. In it, scientists gave participants sips of a milkshake inside an fMRI machine.

What they were interested in is the activation of the striatum. This is an area in the brain that’s rich in dopamine neurons and involved in the processing of hedonic rewards.

What they found is that obese people tended to have reduced activation in the striatum after sipping the milkshake, which led them to consume more of it. “In other words, they kept on consuming the milkshake in a manic search for satisfaction,” Lehrer concludes. 

These findings contradict the cultural stereotype of obesity. We assume that overweight people are gluttons – that they’re unable to resist temptation. However, the opposite is true. They overeat because they don’t enjoy their food enough. They keep consuming the milkshake because it isn’t satisfying. Maybe this is also why we listen to music constantly.

We find it less pleasurable.

Anywhere, Anytime

Like food, we serve up ever-larger portion sizes of music. It greets us in the morning as our phone alarm. We might even sing to it in the shower. On the way to work, our iPod is shuffling away. Once inside the office, we turn on Pandora and go about our work day.

Often, we don’t create the playlists and listening sessions ourselves. iTunes Genius and Pandora generate them for us. Listening requires no effort. We just press play. It’s there.

We hear music all day, but never listen to it. We passively hear it in the background. In order to get the same baseline of pleasure from our music, we need to consume more of it. We’re like the participants in the milkshake study, searching for further satisfaction.

And we never find it.

Soon enough, the pieces of music that used to give us goosebumps, leave us cold. The first time we heard the song, it stirred something deep inside of us. Then we played it again and again until it burned us out. Listening to the song no longer rewards us.

Our brain has memorized the patterns. It knows that the bridge is near. And the more we train it to anticipate the part we like, the less dopamine gets displaced as a result.

What once resembled a cheese and Portobello-stuffed burger is now a Banquet Chicken Pot Pie. Frantically, we peak into our library looking for the musical equivalent of Cheetos.

We’re satisfied. For now. But Chester Cheetah knows we’ll be back for more soon.

This is why it’s important to savor your music. We’re required to invest very little of ourselves today. Add a few more levers. Your music will taste much more delicious. 

Reader Comments (14)

Your statement about one particular song burning us out is definitely true in the short term, but way off in the long term. Revisiting albums is one of my favorite past times, and has been made so much easier with the advent of digital music and large libraries.

January 13 | Unregistered CommenterMark D

There are a few albums that I absolutely don't get tired of listening to. They give me chills every time. I listen to them several times each year. Also, with such an abundance of new music - some good, some bad - I really don't think it's possible to overindulge in music. There are no harmful side effects.

January 13 | Unregistered CommenterLuckyHitJoey

Great article, Kyle.

How about "adding the lever" of going to an independent artist's own website (or Bandcamp page) and buying the music directly from them?

This one "lever press" would help the fan savour the music more, and help the artist to create more music.

January 13 | Unregistered CommenterCatherine Hol

I think you're onto something important here. The point isn't that everyone across the board is incapable of enjoying his or her music. So-called "over-indulging" comes in two potential varieties. There's the music junkie who lives and breathes his or her music collection, who cares for it and propagates it and pays attention. Then there's the passive over-indulger, who presses one play button and receives an endless supply of music for the entire day. There's a big difference between these two types. The key, as you note, is effort. And I'm not judging either way. Not everyone's a huge music fan. Not everyone wants to bother with effort. That's fine. But there are consequences.

Technologists have spent years trying to make things as effort-free for us as possible but the long-term result may not be the blissful stress-free life imagined by all this convenience. Lehrer's article brings that point home. We've been sold the paradise of no effort, and yet our quality of life may actually depend upon effort.

If anything is de-valuing music before our eyes, it may well have to do with exactly that-- that music has gotten to where it can be delivered to us with more or less no effort at all required by the listener. We used to have to go to the record store, buy the record (spending money is symbolic of its own kind of effort, since money is earned by effort), bring it home, go to the one room in the house with the record player, and put it on. We even had to get up to change sides. Now you can "bring it home" without leaving home, without paying; you can listen without having to sit in one particular room, without having to stop doing what you're doing. The effort has been reduced to a minor movement of the right index finger.

January 13 | Registered CommenterJeremy Schlosberg

I do know what you mean on your last point, Kyle, but it's the only section without a study to back up your claim. There's also a term in economics called "diminishing return of utility". Basically, utility is another way to measure satisfaction. The theory goes that each time you consume more of the same thing over the long-run your utility/satisfaction with it will eventually decline. At first it rises, then it may plateau, and finally it falls. You can think of this with the food example, if you're hungry and get a pizza the first couple slices hit the spot. Keep eating, and you start getting full to the point where it's not enjoyable anymore.

Maybe this partially explains what may be happening with music. There's more of it to consume at any time in history, and easier to consume it, so perhaps our utility is going down.

Certainly while listening to music while doing work or anything else means you're not fully focused on music either (or your work too). So it could also mean in some cases, people's utility is not reaching the full potential. Not many people that I know sit down and listen to a whole collection of works in and of itself.

Anyway, just a couple thoughts. It's something that will probably be further studied.

Brian Franke, Singer/Songwriter
@bfrankemusic (Twitter) (blog)

January 13 | Unregistered CommenterBrian Franke

Cool piece! Lots of brainfood here, as suspicious as I am of using single studies to extrapolate Big Answers.

For many years I had a great device called a TV-B-Gone which was a universal "OFF" remote I would bring to malls and waiting rooms.

At first, I got it because the relentless barrage of shit media offended me and I wanted it off: simple.

But then I actually started using it and my motivation changed completely. When I would turn off CNN in a DMV waiting room, people were in shock. I might as well have stood up and taken a dump on a desk in front of them, considering the reaction it got.

What I loved, though, was the realization that would flash across everyone's faces as they realized how much of their sensory bandwidth was being flooded by meaningless noise.

The quiet after you shut Wolf Blitzer up is DEAFENING.

I would like to see the TV-B-Gone device expanded to music systems as well, preferably as a phone app for ubiquitous usage.

Background music is omnipresent, and it's universally pretty terrible music, too. I think it's a mental health issue, and I definitely think it's abuse to run a workplace with crap music going for the entire shift.

January 14 | Unregistered CommenterJustin Boland

@Justin - Brilliant, loved your story!

Makes me think of the torturous cruelty of Christmas music, inflicted on retail staff and shoppers everywhere ... would be great to have a zapper for that.

January 14 | Unregistered CommenterCatherine Hol

I think the most important "effort" one needs to make in regards to music is paying for it. A song is as cheap as a frozen burrito after all right??

January 15 | Unregistered CommenterAirlend

Excellent thought-provoking piece ... for ages, I've had a 'brain scan' page on the BeatConscious site ( where I've collected links to articles that speak to the issue of the human love affair with music -- even linked to some Jonah Lehrer pieces.

This article deserves a prominent spot on the BrainScan page, IMO, because it seems to recognize (among other things) the preference some folks have for experiencing music as 'aural wallpaper' while others choose to concentrate on what's being played as a foreground activity rather than as background.

The idea that significant pleasure can be gained from working with music in a focused way gives new meaning to the idea of the bedroom DJ laboring to put together that perfect mixtape or internet radio show ... obviously, there's a reward system in place for these folks that isn't just about other peoples' response to the mix.

Thanks for the post and the links!

January 16 | Registered CommenterMadameFLY

I'm not entirely sure this article holds weight. Why? Because music isn't something people NEED, but something they WANT. Food and liquids are vitol to staying alive, so I think that changes things in comparison. I believe it comes down to the individual. There are plenty of people out there who are casual music fans who accept whatever the newest, trendiest song is and they're the ones who throw away and who seem to value music less while in reality the ALREADY cared less! Everyone (including myself) that I know who really likes music returns to the albums they enjoy over and over while always on the lookout of new music! Hell, I liked music so much that I BECAME a musician! Coming from the creative side of things, I now see there is a HUGE difference in how music is viewed, accepted, and thought of.

People are inherently lazy. People can find reasons to appreciate why they work, but most would rather have an easy time of things. In this regard, people want to be TOLD what to listen to because it's far easier. That's why everyone is streaming and downloading for free... because it's the easiest solution to getting what they want in their already busy and difficult lives. It's also the reason major radio stations still exist. It's free to listen to, there's an endless amount of music, and it tells us what to like. By all accounts, it should have been affected massively by illegal downloading and streaming, yet radio stations are still here doing what they've always done.

Thanks for your time!

For free downloads of my music go to:

January 16 | Unregistered CommenterChancius

The missing link here is whether the 6 – 9 % dopamine increase (or 22% for cocaine) of Salimpoor’s initial study follows a similar decline over time as the scientists’ who studied striatum activity in obese people. I would propose that Cocaine and most other narcotics result in decreased dopamine increases as the body gets used to it (chasing the dragon anybody!) but Music seems to be a lot more resilient – and (unless you’re a drug lord) a damn site more accessible – which again makes the comparisons hard to equate.

Clearly there is a reward in listening to music – my own study as an undergrad demonstrated a very clear link between auditory stimulus and performance. What we’re currently experiencing is the change in how we interact with music when it becomes freely accessible – this is something that hasn’t happened in human history so using previously established models to try and explain what is going on may not be appropriate.

I believe how people think about music and how they interact with music will change and develop over the coming decades – the formats and rules and interactions determined by the anomaly that was the recording industry will not all survive – but Music will and will be all the better for it.

January 17 | Unregistered CommenterAndrew

"What we’re currently experiencing is the change in how we interact with music when it becomes freely accessible – this is something that hasn’t happened in human history so using previously established models to try and explain what is going on may not be appropriate."

Actually, music WAS always free throughout human history until the advent of player pianos and wax cylinder recordings made by Edison around the late 1870s if memory serves correctly. It was only when it was manufactured and distributed that it cost money. In other words, there have only 130 or so years that music hasn't been free!

You might want to check your facts before posting ;-)

January 18 | Unregistered CommenterMichael

Aaah Michael - thanks for the recommendation but you might want to actually read what people write ;-)

I wrote - "freely accessible" - which is very different from free. And before we go down a pissing match of semantics - I'm talking about the mass shared experience of listening to the same music. Sure people with lutes and penny whistles made music in their homes and pubs and it was "free" - but the music that people aspired to listen to - from the Bach's & Beethovens through to the Lemmys and Lennons - that music has never been free.

January 18 | Registered CommenterAndrew McCluskey

Yes, this is quite right. Some listeners ought to go on a diet. Some might even need a purgavite to get all the bad music out of their system. Put it in your ear and spew, so to speak. You might want to try this version of a famous song to help achieve this:

January 18 | Unregistered CommenterGrange Gorman

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