Yes, music can get you high. Science shows how. (Try it!)

Maybe sex, drugs and rock and roll belong together even more than we thought.

A new study from the Montreal Neurological Institute and Hospital at McGill University found that listening to highly pleasurable music releases the same reward neurotransmitter — dopamine — in the brain that is associated with food, drugs and sex. In fact, just anticipating listening to good music led to release of dopamine in students who participated in the study.

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As researcher Valorie Salimpoor listens to intensely pleasurable music, regions of her brain release dopamine, illustrated in red and blue. (Photo by Peter Finnie)

The research, which studied brain responses with PET and fMRI imaging, was part of a continuing quest to figure out why music is such a key part of human culture when it has no obvious survival value, said Valorie Salimpoor, a Ph.D. candidate in psychology who was lead author of the study published in the journal Nature Neuroscience.

Robert Zatorre, a neuroscientist who participated in the study, said he believed it was the first to find that an abstract experience can lead to dopamine release.

Salimpoor happened on the idea for the research while driving in her car one day. A Brahms composition made her feel such intense joy that she pulled over. She wondered what had made her feel this “intense high.”

The study looked at people who got chills or “musical frisson” in response to music, although it turned out they had the dopamine response to songs they really liked whether they got chills or not.

Listening to music they loved increased dopamine by 6 to 9 percent, Salimpoor said. That’s less than they’d get after taking a drug like cocaine, but more than for food.

As everyone knows, one guy’s favorite song might make someone else gag, so study subjects listened to their own favorites.

Barber’s “Adagio for Strings” was particularly popular, Salimpoor said, but there were also fans of Rachmaninoff, Rodrigo Y Gabriela, Transiberian Orchestra, Infected Mushroom and Led Zeppelin. Other people’s favorites were used as “control” or neutral music.

Listen to some of the songs that gave study subjects chills.
For the full list of songs that students in an earlier, larger study found chill-inducing, click here and go to Table S1.

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