Suzana Herculano-Houzel

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There are sites for everything on the Internet, and the other day I discovered one that sold music that supposedly induced “brain states” similar to those produced by drugs. For a few dollars, the site offered the experience of a lysergic, cocaine or cannabinoid trip produced by your brain in response to specifically created music that you could download to your computer or listen to yourself. A discreet warning made it clear, however, that the effect, including that of the “free sample” available for download, was only guaranteed if you bought the special headphones sold exclusively by them…

Of course, this was just another scam to catch unwary gullible people with credit cards eager to experience the “safe effects” of drugs. Yes, good music is cheap for the brain (this wasn’t the case with the music available on the site, not for my brain – but, of course, I didn’t have the special headphones). By definition, good music is music that works the brain in the right dose and leads to activation of the reward system: the more intense this activation, the more intense the sensation of pleasure.

Each brain has its own personal preferences for what is considered good music, but some criteria are common to the most varied brains. Music that catches our attention has a melodic and temporal structure that is complex enough for the brain’s automatic pattern analysis processes, from the first note onwards, to work hard to create expectations about how the melody should proceed. This (non-conscious) process of trying to guess the next notes and eventually getting it right is a great stimulus to the reward system, which keeps the brain interested in continuing the game and makes it like that song.

On the other hand, melodies that are too simple, such as the Do-Re-Mi-Fa-So-La-Ti-Do of a scale, have such a trivial structure that they quickly cease to serve as a stimulus for the reward system. At the other extreme, sequences that follow patterns too complex for the brain to figure out, or no pattern at all, are frustrating for the reward system – and are soon abandoned because they offer no pleasure.

The more music you listen to, the more your brain learns to find and anticipate patterns in increasingly complex melodies and rhythms, and the more complex music you want to listen to. The pleasure of music comes from the work it gives the brain.

Originally published on Folha de São Paulo on August, 2007. 

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