One day several years ago Valorie Salimpoor took a drive that would change the course of her life. She was at the peak of what she now calls her “quarter-life crisis,” not knowing what kind of career she wanted or how she might use her undergraduate neuroscience training. Hoping an outing might clear her head, that day she jumped in her car and switched on the radio. She heard the charging tempo and jaunty, teasing violin of Johannes Brahms’s Hungarian Dance No. 5.
“This piece of music came on, and something just happened,” Salimpoor recalls. “I just felt this rush of emotion come through me. It was so intense.” She pulled over to the side of the street so she could concentrate on the song and the pleasure it gave her.
When the song was over, Salimpoor’s mind raced with questions. “I was thinking, wow, what just happened? A few minutes ago I was so depressed, and now I’m euphoric,” she says. “I decided that I had to figure out how this happened — that that’s what I’m going to do with the rest of my life.”
Music moves people of all cultures, in a way that doesn’t seem to happen with other animals. Nobody really understands why listening to music — which, unlike sex or food, has no intrinsic value — can trigger such profoundly rewarding experiences. Salimpoor and other neuroscientists are trying to figure it out with the help of brain scanners.
Yesterday, for example, researchers from Stanford reported that when listening to a new piece of classical music, different people show the same patterns of synchronized activity in several brain areas, suggesting some level of universal experience. But obviously no one’s experience is exactly the same. In today’s issue of Science, Salimpoor’s group reports that when you listen to a song for the first time, the strength of certain neural connections can predict how much you like the music, and that these preferences are guided by what you’ve heard and enjoyed in the past.
After Salimpoor had the car epiphany, she rushed home to her computer and Googled “music and the brain.” That led her to graduate school at McGill University, working in the lab of neuroscientist Robert Zatorre.
A few years ago, Salimpoor and Zatorre performed another type of brain scanning experiment in which participants listened to music that gave them goosebumps or chills. The researchers then injected them with a radioactive tracer that binds to the receptors of dopamine, a chemical that’s involved in motivation and reward. With this technique, called positron emission tomography or PET, the researchers showed that 15 minutes after participants listened to their favorite song, their brains flooded with dopamine.
The dopamine system is old, evolutionarily speaking, and is active in many animals during sex and eating. “But animals don’t get intense pleasures to music,” Salimpoor says. “So we knew there had to be a lot more to it.”
In the new experiment, the researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to track real-time brain activity as participants listened to the first 30 seconds of 60 unfamiliar songs. To quantify how much they liked the music, participants were given the chance to buy the full version of each song — with their own money! — using a computer program resembling iTunes. The program was set up like an auction, so participants would choose how much they were willing to spend on the song, with bids ranging from $0 to $2.
You can imagine how tricky it was to design this experiment. All of the participants had to listen to the same set of never-heard-before songs, and yet, in order to get enough useable data, there had to be a reasonable chance that they would like some of the songs enough to buy them.
Salimpoor began by giving 126 volunteers comprehensive surveys about their musical preferences. “We asked them to list all of the music they listen to, everything they like, everything they’ve ever bought,” Salimpoor says. She ultimately scanned 19 volunteers who had indicated similar preferences, mostly electronic and indie music. “In Montreal there’s a big indie scene,” she says.
To create the list of unfamiliar songs, Salimpoor first looked at songs and artists that showed up on many of the volunteers’ surveys. She plugged those choices into musical recommendation programs, such as Pandora and iTunes, to find similar but less well-known selections. She also asked people who worked at local music stores what new songs they’d recommend in those genres.
Here’s a sampling of 3 songs from the final list of 60:
The brain scans highlighted the nucleus accumbens, often referred to as the brain’s ‘pleasure center’, a deep region of the brain that connects to dopamine neurons and is activated during eating, gambling and sex. It turns out that connections between the nucleus accumbens and several other brain areas could predict how much a participant was willing to spend on a given song. Those areas included the amygdala, which is involved in processing emotion, the hippocampus, which is important for learning and memory, and the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, which is involved in decision-making.
The data are “compelling,” especially because the study objectively quantified the participants’ preferences, notes Thalia Wheatley, a psychology professor at Dartmouth College who has studied links between music, motion and emotion. The emphasis on connectivity between regions, rather than any particular region by itself, is also intriguing, she says. “Cortical activity alone does not predict bid value. Hooking up the temporal and evaluative processing in the cortex with the (more primitive) reward areas appears to be the key.”
So why is it that one person might spend $2 on a song while another pans it? Salimpoor says it all depends on past musical experiences. “Depending on what styles youre used to — Eastern, Western, jazz, heavy metal, pop — all of these have very different rules they follow, and they’re all implicitly recorded in your brain,” she says. “Whether you realize it or not, every time you’re listening to music, you’re constantly activating these templates that you have.”
Using those musical memory templates, the nucleus accumbens then acts as a prediction machine, she says. It predicts the reward that you’ll feel from a given piece of music based on similar types of music you’ve heard before. If you like it better than predicted, it registers as intense pleasure. If you feel worse than predicted, you feel bored or disappointed.
“New music is presumably rewarding not only because it fits implicitly learned patterns but because it deviates from those patterns, however slightly,” Wheatley says. But this finding leads to new questions. “It just made me wonder whether people have different preferences or tolerances for how much a new song deviates from the well-worn path of previously heard music structures.”
There are lots of other questions for future studies to probe. How does our brain make those musical templates? How long do we have to listen to a song before we know whether we like it? Why did my sister and I have such drastically different musical tastes growing up, even though our exposures were pretty much the same?
But for now the study has given Salimpoor a new way to think about what happened to her that day in the car. “That day, it all seemed like such a big mystery — what the heck is happening in my brain?” she says. But if she heard the song again today, she’d be able to tell a reasonable story of her mind’s workings.
“I’d be like, oh my god I just released dopamine, and my nucleus accumbens is now communicating with the superior temporal gyrus, and that’s pulling up some other memories of when I was 12 and playing the violin,” she says, laughing. “And then that’s linking it to my visual centers, so I can imagine this perfect synchronized orchestra and me playing a violin in there. And I’d be predicting the next sounds from each instrument in the orchestra, and the whole orchestra, so it’s a local and global prediciton going on at the same time.”
Music, she says, is an intellectual reward. “It’s really an exercise for your whole brain.”
WHAT WE NEED IS HERE:
REFLECTIONS ON THE CHRISTIAN LIFE
I give you thanks, O Lord, with my whole heart; before the gods I sing your praise; I bow down toward your holy temple and give thanks to your name for your steadfast love and your faithfulness; for you have exalted your name and your word above everything. On the day I called, you answered me, you increased my strength of soul. All the kings of the earth shall praise you O Lord, for they have heard the words of your mouth. They shall sing of the ways of the Lord, for great is the glory of the Lord. For though the Lord is high, he regards the lowly; but the haughty he perceives from far away. Though I walk in the midst of trouble, you preserve me against the wrath of my enemies; you stretch out your hand and your right hand delivers me. The Lord will fulfill his purpose for me; your steadfast love, O Lord, endures forever. Do not forsake the work of your hands. – Psalm 138
In my experience of finding spiritual encouragement, music has played a central role. I like to sing, though I certainly do not sing well, and I do not play an instrument. For me, music is more something I listen to. I believe listening connects closely with prayer. Listening is at the heart of my spirituality – to people I converse with, people I read, myself, nature, music. These are a major part of how I encounter God. My most encouraging times are when I have actually allowed myself to hear, to see something in a new way, to learn something. This is certainly true when I have heard some music that has touched me.
Music is special. When I hear, music touches my heart. One of my favorite people to listen to is the Irish singer Van Morrison. I came across this quote about Van Morrison from Bono, of the rock and roll group U2, which is known for its politically oriented music. “People think [Van Morrison] doesn’t seem politically motivated,” Bono said. “But this man is a soul singer, and his music melts the hardest of hearts. That’s very political, because hard hearted behavior results in bigotry, racism, closed-mindedness, and greed – all the things we deal with [in our music].”
Music that touches the heart. That is very important for analytical people like me. The effect of listening to such music is to deepen my soul. Music serves to help me to cry, to help me to laugh. That is, music serves to help me to feel. Being at least part Norwegian, I am not real emotional or “out there.” However, I have learned in recent years, that it is important to experience our feelings, to be aware of our emotional life. For me, music helps – a great deal. Not that all music does so. However, when music does touch us, it touches us in ways nothing else can.
Music has always been important for me in my spiritual life. However, early in my Christian experience, church leaders taught me that the kind of music I liked and listened to, was too worldly. At first, I quit listening to my rock and roll records – such as Elton John, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Cat Stevens, and the Doors. I probably went two years or so without listening to my records. However, I could not bring myself actually to throw away my records. I did start listening to them again – though for several years I felt a bit guilty about it.
After awhile I became more interested in folk music, acoustic music – bluegrass, old-timey, then Celtic. Also, some jazz and blues. It was through Bruce Springsteen that I started getting interested in rock and roll again. I think all along, even from when I was a teen-ager, I liked music that I felt spoke to life as I was experiencing it. Listening to music was a major channel for me to experience my emotional life. Protest songs helped me to feel anger at all the injustices in the world. Love songs helped me to feel sentimental. Sad songs brought forth at least some rumblings of grief at loss and brokenness.
The Bible actually does not say much about music, especially in the New Testament. It does talk about praise, thanksgiving, grief – that is, it talks about our emotional lives. At least a few times, the Bible connects this with music.
Psalm 138 speaks of giving God thanks with one’s “whole heart” (v. 1), in part because God has increased the writer’s “strength of soul” (v. 3). Then, later on there is a reference to singing “of the ways of the Lord” (v. 5). To give thanks with one’s whole heart refers to something beyond simply saying “thank you” with words. Music, poetry, and other forms of art help with expressing what one feels with one’s whole heart. This may include direct thanksgiving and expressions of joy. As well, expressing pain, expressing fear, even anger – when these are part of one’s heart – are a kind of thanksgiving. They are a way of saying this is how I truly feel and I am grateful that I have ways of getting it out. Such expressions, the genuine expressions of the heart, these stem out of God increasing the strength of our souls (v. 3). Such expressions themselves are surely one of the means God uses to strengthen our souls.
We certainly find an expression of pain in Psalm 137. This psalmist is part of the group of Israelites exiled from home following Babylon’s destruction of Israel. The psalm is a lament, a cry of anguish. “By the rivers of Babylon – there we sat down and there we wept” (v. 1). Besides being a powerful expression of grief and loss, this psalm has to do with the authenticity of music. These people, at least, kept their music very close to their souls. To be themselves, they could not simply play anywhere and for anyone. “On the willows there, we hung up our harps” (v. 2). We are not going to “sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land” (v. 4). Their song had to come from the heart.
A third text, from Colossians, speaks of music as praise. As part of Paul’s litany, outlining a Christian way of life, he includes the admonition – “With gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God” (3: 16). My early Christian teachers actually used this verse with me to try to get me to abandon my rock and roll. I guess because of that I have always kind of seen it as a call to extreme piety and super-spirituality. Maybe we should just sing Bible choruses all the time as we go through life.
However, I now see this verse in a way that is helpful. The context is exhortation to live honestly, respectfully and openly toward others, thankfully. If we think of spirituality as that which helps us to so live, then “spiritual songs” are songs that help us to be honest, respectful, thankful. They are songs that help us to experience our feelings. They are songs that offer us insight into what life is about. They are songs that help us to identify and express what our whole hearts are about. They are songs that contribute to melting hard hearts and effecting wholeness. So maybe, Paul would even support rock and roll – at least rock and roll which is genuinely honest about life.
I believe Paul would – or should – support all music that is genuinely honest about life. Such music is a tremendous source of nourishment for a spirituality for who we are. One of the wonderful aspects of music is its diversity. We can respect each other’s tastes, and likely find some common ground with each other. Music helps me express grief, music helps me express joy, and music helps me in my struggle for hope.
When I think about music and grief, I think of a line from W. H. Auden’s eulogy to William Butler Yeats following Yeats’ death. Auden says something to the effect, regarding Yeats, “Ireland hurt you into poetry.” That is, grief brought forth creativity. Yeats is not the only Irish person this was true for. I have found Irish folk music to be extraordinarily expressive of sorrow, putting into voice and music so much of the human experience of loss, longing, separation. One major theme is the loss of loved ones who either leave Ireland or who stay behind. The music also speaks of generations of oppression and of living under the harsh boot of English imperialism.
I came to understand this a little better in an indirect way from a book by black American theologian James Cone, The Spirituals and the Blues. Cone focuses on black music in North America, especially spirituals produced in the slave culture of the 18th and 19th centuries. However, the parallels of American blacks with the Irish are plain.
For both, music was (and is) a major channel of expression of pain and grief. In so being, music serves as a major channel of affirming life, of expressing some sense of hope. Cone writes that what comes out of the spirituals for the people in great pain is an affirmation of their “somebodiness.” In producing this music, they are asserting that, yes we are somebody, we can be creative, we can give voice – beautiful voice – to our experience in life.
In giving voice to this grief, and as well to hope, by expressing it so beautifully in song, the people authenticate their experience. They do exist. They do matter. They will continue to exist. They will continue to matter. There is great power in such affirmation. In the spirituals, it is an affirmation of God’s presence with them, of God’s affirming of their lives as true and worth living. Such an affirmation provided a basis for hopefulness and ongoing healing – even amidst what also certainly proved to be ongoing violence, brokenness, and pain.
Above all else, the spirituals provide – this is true of the best of Irish folk music too – an avenue into the world of feeling. They evoke emotion, grief and joy, awareness of depth in this central part of life. They provide an avenue for people to get beyond the paralysis of numbness. A major psychologically damaging effect that our affluent North American culture has on people is heightening the inability to feel. In our culture we have an inability to know grief and joy, an inability genuinely to know what is going on in our hearts.
I have found, at crucial times in my life, that sad music, when I truly listen, can open me up to feeling, to tears, to grief. I have found that such opening is a key move toward healing. I think that if we experience deep pain, a heart awareness of loss, in a sense that pain never fully leaves us. However, loss is part of life, a rich part of life, a true part of life. To grieve openly over it is to move toward acceptance of it, and living creatively with it.
Traditional Celtic songs refer often to the sorrow of separation. According to Cone, that certainly was a major sub-text in black spirituals as well. Irishman Van Morrison, in his song “Carrickfergus,” with the mournful pipes of the Chieftains in the background, sings of separation. “My childhood days bring back sad reflections of happy days so long ago. My boyhood friends and my own relations, have all passed on like the melting snow.”
Another Celtic favorite of mine, Scotsman Archie Fisher, sings a beautifully sad song called “Ettrick,” which is basically a lament over growing old and the losses that brings. “When I last rode down Ettrick, the wind was shifting, the storm was waking, the snow was drifting, my heart was breaking. For never again would we ride together, in sun or storm on the mountain heather. When I last rode down Ettrick.”
A third Celtic folk song, sung by Jim McCann, is called “The Town I Loved So Well,” and tells of growing up in the city of Derry. “Those were happy days in so many, many ways. In the town I loved so well.” However, after regretfully leaving, the singer returns many years later. The city, a center for the troubles of Northern Ireland, had changed. “But when I returned, how my eyes they were burned to see how a town could be brought to its knees by armored cars and the bombed out bars and the gas that hangs on every breeze…. Now the music’s gone.…What’s done is done, what’s won is won. And what’s lost is lost and gone forever.”  For this singer, what’s lost is his youth, the joys of the old days.
These songs, and many others, at different times have helped me to cry at what I have lost, at separations I have faced. These tears have deepened me and helped to accept and move on creatively in the midst of the loss. These songs of grief have brought forth my grief, at times put voice and sound to it. Hence, these songs helped me to openly express pain as my friend and not as a repressed ticking time bomb. These songs have been a gift.
So, too, for sure, have been songs of joy. I can remember at times, and I still experience this, the effect of hymn singing in church. It has been a way of giving voice to a sense of joy beyond what I could describe by talking about it. This is how music can work, helping us to experience more of the range of our emotional life. Black gospel music and Celtic jigs and reels evoke a sense of motion, of celebration.
For the Irish, and certainly also the celebrating evoked by black Gospel music, we best see this as hard-earned celebration. James Cone writes, “the spiritual is the spirit of the people struggling to be free….[It] is also a vibrant affirmation of life and its possibilities.”