Every time I hear the piece called “Swara Kakali” from the album “West Meets East” by sitar maestro Ravi Shankar and violinist Yehudi Menuhin, I get transported to a different world. My husband says that I experience musical orgasm! Intense feelings that people experience upon hearing music have been variously described as chills, frission, thrills and even skin orgasm. Studies have shown previously that things that induce pleasurable feelings such as food and sex cause the brain to release chemicals known as opiods which bind to their receptors and trigger the release of the dopamine neurotransmitter in the brain resulting in intensifying these feelings. A rewarding experience such as listening to music apparently has two phases, as found by a 6yr old study (1). In the first phase, there is anticipation for the reward (say a favorite part of in the music piece) and the second phase is the pleasure one gets while experiencing the reward (when the favorite part actually plays). Both phases are regulated by dopamine. Other studies involving food and sex as rewards have found that the second ‘pleasure’ phase involves the binding of opiods to opiod receptors and activating them to trigger further release of dopamine. It was not clear if a similar chemical reaction is triggered upon listening to music.

A recent study published in Scientific Reports attempts to answer this by using an opiod receptor antagonist drug called Naltrexone or NTX (2).  NTX likes to bind to the opiod receptors and prevent binding of opiods produced by our body in response to pleasure thus stopping the subsequent increase in dopamine release. The authors conducted a double-blind cross over study which means that all the 15 participants received NTX or a placebo before the experiment and neither they nor the investigators knew what they got until after the study was fully completed. The participants were asked to bring two pieces of their favorite music that instills ‘chills’ whenever they listen to it. The authors also used previously tested neutral music that the participants had not heard before as a control. First, they measured any differences in nerve conductivity or relay of electrical signals from the nerves of facial muscles involved in smiling and frowning while they hear pleasurable music (of their choice) and neutral music (selected by authors). Second, they measured the pleasure experienced by the participants in real time by asking them to use slider buttons scaled from 1 to 10 to indicate their level of pleasure as they listen to the two kinds of music.

They find that upon taking NTX, the participants experienced a decrease in the nerve conductivity of both smiling and frowning muscles indicating that NTX affects both positive and negative feelings triggered by listening to music. This decrease was especially stark when they listened to pleasurable music. The authors suggest that this is because the feelings associated with pleasurable music of the participant’s choice are more intense than the ones experienced upon listening to the neutral music. Next, they also find that pleasure that the participants experienced real time upon listening to their favorite music was also significantly attenuated whenever they took NTX, further confirming that the opiods are indeed involved in experiencing musical ‘chills’.  Our bodies therefore use opiods to not only experience the pleasure of eating good food and having sex but also to experience the positive and negative emotions triggered by our favorite music. I often wonder why many musicians are addicted to prescription opiates. May be taking these drugs offers a way to sustain intense feelings of pleasure and sadness beyond music to their everyday lives.

Music pervades all aspects of our lives and as attempts to use it to effectively manage pain become popular, it is immensely interesting and important to understand the nature of the various chemical reactions that it elicits in us. This study is yet another step in that direction.

References

  1. Anatomically distinct dopamine release during anticipation and experience of peak emotion to music
  2. Anhedonia to music and mu-opioids: Evidence from the administration of naltrexone – music_scientific_report
  3. Cover image courtesy
  4. Swara-Kakali from West Meets East