Music Produces Pleasure in Similar Way as Drugs, Sex

Music acts on opioid receptors in the brain in a manner similar to sex and drugs. Lucy Nicholson / REUTERS

Sex, drugs, and rock 'n roll: What do they all have in common? Each can affect the brain in a similar way.

New research suggests that music creates pleasure in part by acting upon the brain's opioid system. This neurochemical pathway involves the release of substances naturally produced by the brain that are structurally similar to opiates like heroin. These chemicals are also involved in pleasure derived from eating sugary foods and activities like sex and gambling.

For the study published February 9 in the journal Scientific Reports, 17 participants listened to music they enjoy in the laboratory at McGill University. On one day, they did so after taking naltrexone, a drug that binds to opioid receptors and blocks the activity of opiates (it is also used to treat people addicted to heroin and alcohol). On a second day, they listened to music they like after taking an inactive placebo.

The researchers found that when study subjects took naltrexone, they reported their favorite songs were no longer pleasurable (there was no change with the placebo). However, when they listened to music they didn't have strong feelings about, the drug didn't make a significant difference.

The participants said their favorite music "still sounded pretty, but they weren't moved by it" under the influence of the opioid-blocker, says McGill neuroscientist Daniel Levitin, who authored the study along with postdoctoral researcher Mona Lisa Chanda and Adiel Mallik, a Ph.D. student. "Normally it made them feel good, but [naltrexone] left them not feeling anything."

Previous work by Valorie Salimpoor, from Canada's Rotman Research Institute, has shown that the neurotransmitter dopamine is involved in the "reward" associated with music, says Josep Marco-Pallarés, a neuroscientist at the University of Barcelona. However, the Scientific Reports paper is the first to his knowledge to conclusively show opioids also play a role in the sensation, he says.

The results are not unexpected, Marco-Pallarés says, as music has always been considered highly pleasurable, and new research shows it can also dull pain. Levitin notes that listening to pleasant music during and prior to surgery can reduce a patient's discomfort.

Ethnomusicologist Alexandre Tannous, who uses a mixture of sound and meditation to help people with their emotional struggles, says it's interesting to know what receptors are involved, but wishes more researchers would examine the ancient, sometimes esoteric origins of the use of music for healing. This power has been noted by thinkers such as Plato, Socrates and Pythagoras. "The way sound heals is incredibly complex, [and] somehow acts to re-calibrate the emotional state…to bring back alive once again the full emotional capacity of the person."

People consistently rank music among the top 10 things that bring the most pleasure, usually ranking it above money, food or visual art, says Vanderbilt University professor David Zald. "In that sense, it can be viewed as a 'healthy addiction.'" So "it may not be surprising," he adds, "that the same neurochemicals and receptor that play a key role in addiction play a role in musical pleasure."