Brain Scans of Barber’s Adagio

Does music gives you chills?

It definitely does for me. Lots of music can do it, but I always know that if I’m going to listen to Barber’s Adagio or any Dexter Gordon ballad, I’ll immediately be covered in goosebumps.

Researchers at McGill University in Montreal have published what Dario Dieguez, Jr., PhD at Brain Blogger says is the first direct evidence that these music-induced sensations are associated with dopamine activity in the brain’s reward system—just like love, chocolate, and heroin.

The researchers selected eight subjects who reported to regularly experience chills at the same point in certain pieces of music. Each subject chose a piece of music he or she thought would give a sure-fire chill response, the genres of which ended up being a microcosm of your average music store, ranging from classical to electronica to tango. They also made sure that the songs didn’t have lyrics or personal connections to control for interfering emotional elements. Then they performed PET scans and fMRI scans as the subjects listened.

Brain scans of dopamine release from a 2001 music study. I wish my brain was that colorful.

Turns out that brain activity varied depending on what was going on with the music. During anticipation, as the music was building towards a climax, there was increased blood flow in the caudate nucleus, which is the part of the brain partially associated with motivation. Once subjects reached that musical climax, the nucleus accumbens took over, increasing blood flow to that area that’s involved with reward. You could say that musical anticipatory sections are like waking up to the smell of freshly baked cinnamon rolls, and the climaxes are like finally getting to eat them.
This is really cool for two reasons. The first is that musicians are already trained to take advantage of this principle. Not to release dopamine, specifically, but to carefully push and pull, anticipate and release, play with the tension and consonance of the music, whether it’s in composing, improvising, conducting, or playing a pre-composed piece. Classical soloists push and pull the tempo, especially as the music edges towards a resolution, to let that anticipatory feeling last as long as possible. Jazz musicians keep playing over the a chord just a little too long after the next chord has come, and when they finally play something that fits, there’s a wonderful sense of relief. The best way to get an audience at a rock concert excited, next to playing a song they know, is having a guitar solo repeat the same few notes over and over and over and over until finally culminating in a satisfying high bend.
And science has finally shown us why.
The second reason this is cool is in its medical applications. In Oliver Sacks’ fascinating book Musicophilia, he talks about how Parkinson’s patients who can barely move are able to dance when exposed to the right music. This gets really interesting when you realize that the major medication doctors use to treat Parkinson’s is L-dopa, which is converted into dopamine in the human body. I don’t dare make unqualified assumptions, but I wonder if there’s a possibility of music playing the same role as medication for these patients. Sacks says something like it himself:

…[I] saw the extraordinary powers of music with our post-encephalitic patients—its power to “awaken” them at every level: to alertness when they were frozen, and, most uncannily, to vivid emotions and memories, fantasies, whole identities which were, for the most part, unavailable to them. Music did everything that L-dopa, still in the future, was subsequently to do, and more—but only for the brief span while it lasted, and perhaps for a few minutes afterwards. Metaphorically, it was like auditory dopamine—a “prosthesis” for the damaged basal ganglia.

I’ve heard that some neurologists consider Oliver Sacks to go a little further with the facts than he should, so it’s important to take his descriptions of these amazing effects with a grain of salt, but it’s still pretty inspiring.
The moral of all this, I guess, is that chocolate may make you feel like you’re in love, but music does the same thing with fewer calories. If you really want to feel good, go listen to the stunning climax of Barber’s Adagio and get rid of your significant other. Just tell them science told you to.

Ashley Hamer

Ashley Hamer (aka Smashley) is a saxophonist and writer living in Chicago, where she performs regularly with the funk band FuzZz and jazz ensemble Big Band Boom. She also does standup comedy, sort of, sometimes. Her tenor saxophone's name is Ladybird.

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  1. I’m trying to think of a song that would give me a “sure-fire” chill. I can readily think of songs that make me cry, and I definitely love a lot of songs dearly, but they usually relax me more than give me chills. But maybe it’s the same effect anyway.

  2. Great article! I’ve often wondered about this effect as I’ve experienced chills, sadness, euphoria, and once, in college, a fellow composition student wrote a piece called “Butcher Shop” which scared the crap out of me.

  3. Guitar solos often give me chills, so I smiled and understood your ‘note, note, note, beeeeeeeeend’ example very well.
    There is one song that is guaranteed to make me tear up. And it’s because of the lyrics (specifically, who and what the singer is singing about) and the fact that I know the story behind the lyrics. But that is certainly different than pure music eliciting a response.

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