Why You Haven’t Found Your Musical Soulmate (Blame Science)

At Feed.fm, we’ve published a plethora of content on how music can affect fitness outcomes. Music makes runners feel less tired while enabling them to run faster and more intensely; music can nearly double the amount of time people spend at the gym; music can help people set world records in major Olympic events. 

We know there is tremendous impact, and we also spend a lot of time thinking about how to program music for large groups of exercisers listening asynchronously. The curation team approaches each workout soundtrack as a unique experience, and our algorithms help personalize the experience (if you dislike a song, you’ll never hear it again). We’ve found that some songs are very polarizing, though, and it’s sometimes impossible to predict. To truly understand the highly individualized power of music, we have to go deeper than the effects and ask a few important questions:

  • What's actually happening inside the brain when music is heard, and how does this translate into the powerful end effects that helps athletes train harder?
  • Why does certain music work for pumping SOME people up, while having the opposite effect on others? Everyone has made friends because of overlaps in music taste, but have you ever met anyone who has exactly the same taste as you, song by song and year by year?
  • Above all, what about our brains makes our individual taste in music so unique?

Major and Minor: Dopamine Is Both

All of these questions are addressed when we look at the effect music has on dopamine transmission in the brain. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter which heavily impacts emotional behavior and mood regulation. Multiple studies, including a 2016 publication in the journal Neuroscience which found a link between individual dopamine profiles and music taste, indicate that "genetic variability of dopamine receptors affects... mood and emotion processing." Everyone has been in a situation where the right song at the right time immediately lifts us into an elevated state - we not only feel better, we perform better. That’s dopamine being created and released in your brain. When dopamine receptors are hit, you may feel something happening inside yourself, but it won’t be the case for everyone - that same song, played for a different person, may ruin their energy, while it gives you a boost of motivation to finish a workout.

Why is that the case?

The 100% comprehensive answer is far too extensive for this blog alone, but in simple terms: the reason the effects of a specific piece of music can vary so much from person to person is because the way dopamine creation is triggered in the brain varies drastically from person to person. In fact, the degree of variation is so significant that scientists have classified a host of variants of dopamine receptors, with individual profiles and ways of responding to specific types of music. The nature of dopamine in your brain can even be temporarily (but significantly) manipulated through neurotransmission-affecting stimulus such as magnets, as a 2017 study at McGill university found. Put simply, you have certain "types" of dopamine receptors much like you might have a specific brand of car.

Say you drive a Toyota Prius. Even in a big parking lot with tons of Priuses, you can still spot your car from a distance, because it looks unique and familiar to you... and you recognize it as YOURS and yours only. Music parallels this: when you hear a song that ‘works’ with your taste, you recognize it as good (“I really like this song”), and the resulting dopamine flow improves mood, energy and performance.

Complicated Composition (Of The Brain)

The variations between individuals’ mental music processing is not one dimensional. Unlike language, which has a specific part of the brain responsible for its functional use, processing music involves a multitude of brain segments. The temporal and frontal lobes (sound processing), motor cortex (dancing), visual cortex (visualization in time with the music), and cerebellum (predicting where a musical sequence will go next) all get into the act, making the process of actively listening to music far more engrossing than processing language or images. What's more, if a song has lyrics or spoken word, the parts of the brain responsible for language kick into gear as well - to process meaning, narrative and tone. So music involves much more of the brain, which makes it more engrossing than other learning experiences.

The impact stretches beyond just music theory or emotional lyrics - music listening is an active, psychologically engaging process. It wakes up huge segments of your brain, which is why the way you react to music is as unique as your genetic code.

The Difference is In the Dopamine Receptor

On top of various brain parts combining to fully process a piece of music, the production of dopamine occurs in multiple parts of the brain. There isn’t just one home base, which is why the release of dopamine can have such wide ranging effects. Our individual dopamine receptor profiles vary from region to region within the brain - within a specific part of the brain, Person A will likely have a different receptor profile than Person B - and when the whole picture comprising the differences between ALL dopamine receptors in two individuals is considered, the degree of uniqueness stretches even further.

Take the car analogy again - the differences between your Prius and your neighbor's Prius isn't limited to just one aspect of the car (say, color.) You may have different stereo systems, rims, tires, seat covers, factory options, etc. The same goes for dopamine - in the many parts of the brain where it is released, the differences between individuals stack up, making for highly differentiated aggregated dopamine profiles. This is why a single piece of music can have such polarizing effects, even for otherwise similar peers listening to the same song at the same time in the same place - it’s not just a central dopamine factory processing music. A 2015 study found that "a person's brain type, or the way that they think, is actually... a predictor of music tastes." The differences are combining in various parts of the brain to create a truly unique listening experience.

Dopamine is tremendously influential when it comes to your taste in and reaction to music. As the authors of the NAS paper put it - pharmacological manipulation of dopamine modulates musical responses in both positive and negative directions, thus showing that dopamine causally mediates musical reward experience. This is a wordy way of saying: your individual dopamine profile will determine whether you like or dislike a specific piece of music.

Which might explain why we hold music so close to our hearts - any given person’s music taste is unique, and listening to music is an individual, emotion-based experience at its core, even though it all starts with a couple of neurotransmitters.