When it comes to hearing music, a network of nerves in the auditory cortex called the corticofugal network helps catalog the different patterns of music. When a specific sound maps onto a pattern, our brain releases a corresponding amount of dopamine, the main chemical source of some of our most intense emotions. This is the essential reason why music triggers such powerful emotional reactions, and why, as an art form, it is so inextricably tied to our emotional responses.
Take the chorus of “Someone Like You” by Adele, a song that has one of the most recognizable chord progressions in popular music: I, V, vi IV. The majority of our brains have memorized this progression and know exactly what to expect when it comes around. When the corticofugal network registers that of “Someone Like You,” our brain releases just the right amount of dopamine. Like a needle tracing the grooves of a record, our brains trace these patterns. The more “records” we own, the more patterns we can recall to send out that perfect dopamine hit.
As with most trendy neuro-journalism, this simply rephrases the description of what it’s like to enjoy music and passes it off as an explanation of why we enjoy music. Saying “I love that song because my brain squirts dopamine when it recognizes that chord progression” does nothing to improve upon “I love that song because I think that chord progression is beautiful.” But anyone can make fun of our age’s facile obsession with neurochemistry. I’m offering to prove it to be shallow. You can hook me up to a tanker truck full of dopamine, and I will still always despise the keyboard intro to the Who’s “Baba O’Riley” no matter how many times you play it. No chemical chicanery can overpower my hatred of that godawful song.