From serene sonatas to heavy metal, music of all genres has the ability to play on our heartstrings, although new research shows that some of us are more susceptible to the emotional power of songs than others. Appearing in the Journal of Neuroscience, the study reveals that differences in the structure of white matter in particular brain regions determines why some of us are overcome with goosebumps at the sound of music, while others find it all a bit "meh".
Inspiration for this research came when a team of scientists from the University of Barcelona (UB) and the Bellvitge Biomedical Research Institute (UB-IDIBELL) began looking into a condition called musical anhedonia. This refers to an inability to feel any pleasure whatsoever when listening to music, despite being able to enjoy other rewarding stimuli such as food and sex.
The researchers recruited 38 volunteers, around a third of whom suffered from musical anhedonia, and used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to scan their brains while they listened to classical music. At the same time, participants were also asked to state how much they enjoyed the music on a scale of one to four.
The study authors were particularly interested in looking at the white matter that connects certain areas of the auditory cortex with the brain’s reward center, in order to get an idea of how these regions communicate with each other in people with musical anhedonia.
Results showed that individual differences in the amount of pleasure derived from hearing music correlates with the level of connectivity between a part of the auditory cortex called the supratemporal auditory cortex and the ventral striatum, which forms part of the brain’s reward circuit.
Participants who suffered from musical anhedonia had less white matter connecting these particular brain regions than those who did not have the condition, indicating that this communication stream is responsible for our ability to enjoy rhythmic sound.
Study author Josep Marco-Pallarés said in a statement that this finding explains “why there are specific anhedonia for a specific stimulus like music but not for other stimuli like games or food, which could have other applications for the understanding of several pathologies that are related to specific addictions or specific anhedonia for a certain stimulus.”
So, if you find that music doesn’t quite do it for you, it could be down to a lack of connectivity between your supratemporal auditory cortex and ventral striatum. Or it could just be that you need to listen to better music.