Although listening to music is considered a rewarding activity on a
universal scale, about 3-5% of the healthy population does not
experience pleasurable feelings in response to any type of music. This
condition is known by the specific name of musical anhedonia. Although the existence of this phenomenon has been known for
some years, it was not known why or how it was produced.
Researchers from the Cognition and Cerebral Plasticity group of the
Bellvitge Biomedical Research Institute and the University of Barcelona
(IDIBELL-UB), in collaboration with researchers from the University of
McGill (Montreal), have published a new study in which brain mechanisms
associated to the lack of sensitivity to music are explained.
‘Decrease of pleasant response to music shown by people with musical anhedonia is related to a reduction in the activity of the nucleus accumbens, a key subcortical structure of the reward system.’
published by PNAS
journal, gives clues about the importance of
music at an evolutionary level based on the connection between the
auditory and emotional areas of the brain.
people do not have problems correctly perceiving and processing the
information contained in a melody (such as intervals or rhythms) and
present a normal pleasure response to other pleasant stimuli (such as
money), but do not enjoy musical stimuli", explains Noelia
Martínez-Molina, researcher at the IDIBELL-UB group and lead author of
In their work, researchers analyzed 45 healthy volunteers using
functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). Participants were divided
into three groups according to the score obtained in a questionnaire
developed by the same research group.
During the fMRI session, participants had to listen to snippets of
classic genre songs and provide pleasure values on a scale from one to four
in real time. To control the brain response to other types of rewards,
participants also had to play a monetary wagering task in which they
could win or lose real money.
The results showed that the decrease of pleasant response to music
shown by participants with musical anhedonia is related to a reduction
in the activity of the nucleus accumbens, a key subcortical structure of
the reward system. However, the activity of this structure is
maintained when other reinforcers, such the money gained in the task of
betting, are in place.
"It is interesting to consider the evolutionary importance of the
connection between the auditory areas, cortical, and the more primitive
system of emotional evaluation, subcortical," says the researcher. This
connection is very clear in hedonic musical people - those who enjoy
music - but diminishes in anhedonics. "The link between areas ensures
that music is experienced as very rewarding, while stressing its
importance at an evolutionary level, even when it does not seem obvious
what the biological gain of this cultural production is."