Paul McGowan: My friend Robert sent me a link to a great article on how music affects the brain in the New York Times. It’s well worth the read should you be as interested in the subject as I am.
What it shows is the same mechanisms at work we use for figuring out all manner of complex interactions; that of pattern recognition and prediction. This ability we have, built into our brains, to see and predict patterns based on a reward and punishment system is as ancient as our race is. It’s how you know when a musician hits a wrong note even when the music is new to you – you know it’s the wrong note because you’ve predicted what the pattern will be and the musician got it wrong.
On the other hand, if the composer decides to surprise us with an unexpected twist, the same mechanisms are at work. We predict what pattern he’ll give us next and, if that pattern falls within acceptable limits, we get something totally unexpected we are delighted with the cleverness of the composer. The music is not longer “run of the mill” when we receive the unexpected .
Our reward for accurately predicting the pattern is dopamine, which makes us feel elated, and our “punishment” for an inaccurate prediction or outcome is the feeling of letdown and with enough of it – rejection.
Get enough good music, presented properly, and you can get a dopamine “fix” as often as you like. Many of us are music junkies and that’s just part of the reason why.