Mind the Brain Podcast Episode 02: The Neuroscience of Music – Anticipation and Reward

For the second in my neuroscience podcast series, I chat with Robert Zatorre, who is a Professor in the Department of Neurology at McGill University. His lab studies the function of our auditory systems, in the context of complex cognitive functions like speech and music. He studies not only the sensory perception of speech and music, but also what is happening in our brains when we try and understand and react to those sounds.

In this podcast, we discuss another major focus of this lab, which is the relationship between music, emotion, and reward. We start by discussing why neuroscientists like to study music, and what makes it unique in terms of its perceptual and emotional qualities. We then dive into some of the work Robert’s lab has been doing over the past ten years, in terms of the effects that music has on the reward systems in our brain. His lab has shown that not only can music evoke strong emotional pleasure, but that when it does, its effects in the brain are very similar to rewarding stimuli like food, sex, and drugs of abuse.

Finally, we talk about why this might be case. Why should music be so rewarding, if it’s not required for our survival? It could be related to the fact that one of the core features of music is a component of anticipation, which is computed in time. Our brains are extremely good at making predictions, and it’s very rewarding to us when we can make accurate predictions about future events, because that’s how we learn. So the anticipation that is inherent in music might be taking advantage of a very fundamental function of our brains.

You can listen to and download the podcast here.

Please enjoy, and if you’re interested in learning more, you can read Robert’s recent “Gray Matter” article in the New York Times.

You can also read some of this scholarly publications here, here, and here.


5 thoughts on “Mind the Brain Podcast Episode 02: The Neuroscience of Music – Anticipation and Reward”

  1. Music and Emotions

    The most difficult problem in answering the question of how music creates emotions is likely to be the fact that assignments of musical elements and emotions can never be defined clearly. The solution of this problem is the Theory of Musical Equilibration. It says that music can’t convey any emotion at all, but merely volitional processes, the music listener identifies with. Then in the process of identifying the volitional processes are colored with emotions. The same happens when we watch an exciting film and identify with the volitional processes of our favorite figures. Here, too, just the process of identification generates emotions.

    An example: If you perceive a major chord, you normally identify with the will “Yes, I want to…”. If you perceive a minor chord, you identify normally with the will “I don’t want any more…”. If you play the minor chord softly, you connect the will “I don’t want any more…” with a feeling of sadness. If you play the minor chord loudly, you connect the same will with a feeling of rage. You distinguish in the same way as you would distinguish, if someone would say the words “I don’t want anymore…” the first time softly and the second time loudly.
    Because this detour of emotions via volitional processes was not detected, also all music psychological and neurological experiments, to answer the question of the origin of the emotions in the music, failed.

    But how music can convey volitional processes? These volitional processes have something to do with the phenomena which early music theorists called “lead”, “leading tone” or “striving effects”. If we reverse this musical phenomena in imagination into its opposite (not the sound wants to change – but the listener identifies with a will not to change the sound) we have found the contents of will, the music listener identifies with. In practice, everything becomes a bit more complicated, so that even more sophisticated volitional processes can be represented musically.

    Further information is available via the free download of the e-book “Music and Emotion – Research on the Theory of Musical Equilibration:


    or on the online journal EUNOMIOS:


    Enjoy reading

    Bernd Willimek


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