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Hold the Nobel Prize: Scientists prove that new music boosts the brain

A team of Canadian neurologists has found that listening to new music is likely to activate the so-called ‘reward centre’ of the brain.

In other words, new music reaches parts that other stimuli leave dormant. This is from a BBC report:

Dr Valorie Salimpoor, from the Rotman Research Institute, in Toronto, told the BBC’s Science in Action programme: “We know that the nucleus accumbens is involved with reward.

“But music is abstract: It’s not like you are really hungry and you are about to get a piece of food and you are really excited about it because you are going to eat it – or the same thing applies to sex or money – that’s when you would normally see activity in the nucleus accumbens.

“But what’s cool is that you’re anticipating and getting excited over something entirely abstract – and that’s the next sound that is coming up.”

Do we feel better now? Did we really need neurologists to tell us that? How many brain cells did they waste in demonstrating the bloody obvious?

I came out of the dress rehearsal a new opera last night, ten years younger and high on testosterone. Happens all the time. QED.

new brain

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  1. By that token the entire nation (or at least the middle class) is collectively enriched by the Today programme playing an extract of Psy’s latest opus this morning – he’s the miscreant responsible for Gangnam Style if that isn’t stating the obvious.

    I suppose you actually have to want to hear the new music as I certainly didn’t feel very enriched this morning! (aside from the usual effects of muesli)

  2. Thanks. I felt elated when I listened to classical music in my early teens—I did not understand classical music then but the impact on my mind was overwhelming—it was as though a whole new world was unfolding before me.
    The music lingered inside my head for long periods of time and I never found it to be ‘boring’ despite it ringing over and over in my mind. The powers of music are more intriguing and mysterious than what we thought.

  3. Timon Wapenaar says:

    So if you know what the next sound is going to be, you don’t get excited, and hence no activation of the nucleus accumbens? Suppose that rules Glass out of the reward anticipation equation, but then again the Glass/Riley/Reich axis aren’t into activating all those Bernaysian reflexes. I would like to know just how they chose their “new” music for this study.

    • Good point. Especially when you consider that New Music, at least in its strictly academic definition, is pretty old by now. I recall that Dahlhaus dated the birth of New Music to around 1910. Along the same lines, even half a century ago, Adorno was speaking of the aging of the New Music. For starters, then, it would be interesting to know how old the New Music in this experiment was. Further, it would be useful to know which new music qualified as New Music and which did not.

  4. Right on! The anticipation……..Several pieces do this to me just thinking about them, and at the first note,

    but even in a piece -well-written — that I’ve never heard before, the next note is often what I’m headed for in my mind, and sometimes a complete and utterly amazing surprise.

  5. Here is a link to another brief write-up of the same bit of research, marred slightly by an overly journalistic style.

    The expression “new” music is used to mean unfamiliar, i.e. new to the listener, rather than any specific genre.

    Did you have a bad day Norman ? Pouring scorn on research into “demonstrating the bloody obvious” perhaps misses the point that research is often trying to explain, rather than establish, the “bloody obvious”. And of course it gets more interesting when the “bloody obvious” doesn’t happen as we thought it should. The great thing about research is that can often find out that the “bloody obvious”, i.e. perceived wisdom of the time, is actually wrong.

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