Neurotransmitters and Music

Anna Culver

These days I have grown increasingly interested in mental health and music’s role in affecting mental well-being. I’m fascinated by the idea that what goes on in our mental or emotional life is also a physical, biological process, and that these areas that we normally see as separate (mental, physical) are actually linked or even part of the same system. Psychologists say that everything psychological is biological. And every thought we have occurs in our neurocircuitry.

It’s worth mentioning that I am not a doctor or trained as a scientist. But as an inquisitive person, and as someone who anecdotally knows how music (and particularly playing music with others) has affected my life positively, I find this topic so interesting and have been looking forward to exploring it here.

So what are neurotransmitters? According to the trusty Wikipedia page 1 , neurotransmitters are “chemical messengers” that “transmit signals across a chemical synapse,” from one neuron to another neuron, muscle cell, or gland cell. There are more than 100 known neurotransmitters, but some well-known and oft-talked about examples include serotonin, dopamine, norepinephrine, and oxytocin.

Our levels of different neurotransmitters have a major impact on our mental health; for example, low serotonin is correlated with depression, just as low dopamine is correlated with ADHD. Neurotransmitters have obvious implications for addiction, as well, since some substances severely spike and then crash levels of dopamine, for instance 2.

Research on music as it pertains to neurotransmitters is relatively new, but a few studies exist. For the purposes of this article (and based on available research), I’ll be focusing primarily on dopamine and oxytocin.

So first, dopamine. As a person with ADHD (and we know ADHD is common among musicians and other creative people) I am familiar with dopamine and its effect on the motivation so necessary for learning an instrument. I’m also familiar with the snowball effect that practicing music has on increasing motivation and maintaining attention and interest. So it is unsurprising to me that dopamine would be correlated with some intrinsic aspect of music.

At McGill University in 2011, a study was performed 3 to measure dopamine levels in participants as they listened to music that they enjoyed and that they felt neutral about. Using a variety of metrics such as PET scans, qualitative measures such as participants’ reports of pleasurable feeling, and also “chills” (as in the chills experienced when listening to music that moves you) this study was able to make a correlation between experiencing pleasure while listening to music, to dopamine production. But what is groundbreaking about this study is that the research found that dopamine is released often about 15 seconds before a “pleasurable” chord or sense of resolution. This speaks to something that is obvious to any musician; that music is a process of tension and resolution.

This study differentiated between two phases of dopamine production: the “wanting” phase and the “liking” phase. Or in other words, expectation and reward. Further, dopamine is highly adaptable to predictable stimuli. So the greater the anticipation, or the more unexpected the resolution/lack thereof, the greater the release of dopamine.

So for songs that hang on the V chord, or that have an unexpected turn before resolving to the I, there is a neurochemical reason why that suspension is exciting.

Now let’s get into oxytocin. This neurotransmitter is associated with social bonding and is known for being released during infant-parent bonding (in fact, recent studies have shown 4 that oxytocin is released after parent-child vocalization, not just physical contact as previously thought. After reading about oxytocin in the context of singing, I find this fascinating). Several studies have shown that oxytocin is released in group musical settings.

In a 2014 study about choral singing, oxytocin was shown to increase after group singing 5 , at a level markedly higher than after conversational chatting. Many of the study’s participants were amateur singers, many of whom had been singing non-professionally for most of their adult life. The levels of oxytocin released were not dependent on being a professional or an amateur singer. The researchers pointed out that this commitment may indicate a lasting strong social bond, which is present for singers regardless of professional ability.

Another 2015 study 6 (low sample size, but provided initial data) compared improvisational singing with arranged performances in a jazz vocal quartet. The participants were student musicians of varying skill levels, and some of them expressed that they had trouble getting into a “flow state” (i.e., lost sense of time, immersion in the present moment, effortless performance) due to not being experienced improvisors. But, the average oxytocin levels went up after improvisational singing and down after singing standard arrangements. In the discussion of this study, improvisation was framed as an interdependent activity that naturally leads to social bonding behaviors (listening, responding, eye contact, cooperation).

So. As bluegrass musicians, we get to experience social bonding whether we’re amateur or professional musicians, and our skill level at improvisation may impact our ability to “get in the flow,” but oxytocin is released at higher levels when improvising no matter what.

There’s a reason why playing music together creates such a close community. It literally has to do with chemicals in our brains. That may not sound particularly romantic, but I actually find it hopeful: music brings us together in a way that is beyond our control. Just as playing music together in a group setting such as a jam helps us bond, the tension and resolution embedded in music theory and song structure affects our brains on a chemical level, and increases our dopamine. Rad.

Music makes us healthier, happier and more connected to each other. We know this intrinsically, but it’s pretty cool to see the specifics of how music functions in our neurochemistry. I’m into it.

3. Salimpoor, V.N., Benovoy, M., Larcher, K., Dagher, A., & Zatorre, R.J. (2011). Anatomically distinct dopamine release during anticipation and experience of peak emotion to music. Nature Neuroscience (14), pp. 257-262.
4. Chanda, M.L. & Levitin, D.J. (2013). The neurochemistry of music. Trends in Cognitive Sciences 17(4), pp. 179-193. Pg 188.
5. Kreutz, G. (2014). Does Singing Facilitate Social Bonding? Music & Medicine Vol. 6(2), pp. 51-60.
6. Keeler, J.R., Roth, E.A., Neuser, B.L., Spitsbergen, J. M., Waters, D.J.M., & Vianney, J. (2015). The neurochemistry and social flow of singing: bonding and oxytocin. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience 9(518), pp. 1-10.