The Magic of Music – a biochemical orchestra at work.

“Music triggers the same pleasure-reward system in the brain as food, sex and illicit drugs”

I came across a fascinating piece of research conducted by a team at the Montreal Neurological Institute at McGill University and published in the journal Nature NeuroscienceThese brainy people undertook an experiment to try to find out exactly why people love music so much and what they discovered is fascinating to a music lover like me.   When we are listening to favourite pieces of music our brains are busy pushing out the neurotransmitter dopamine, which has long been known to generate feelings of pleasure when we eat or have sex – which are not only fun but key to survival. 

The volunteers for the experiment were given two types of brain scans while listening to their favourite music – PET (positron emission tomography) which showed if and where in the brain dopamine was being released and MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) which shows oxygen usage in brain cells, indicating which areas of the brain were being stimulated as the pleasure kicked in.   As the volunteers listened to music they really liked, clear signs of pleasure showed on the scans, along with physical responses such as elevated heart rates and chills running up their spines.  There was almost no response when the volunteers listened to music they didn’t like or were indifferent to – the reaction was totally dependent on their individual tastes and preferences in music.  It didn’t matter if it was punk, classical or bagpipes, if they liked it they responded and if they didn’t there was no response. 

The researchers did not determine why music engages this  ancient system deep in the striatum, a primitive region deep in the brain, but by doing so music has a powerful, pleasurable effect on us.   Heroin and cocaine hijack the same system, which helps explain why they are so addictive, but if you get the same high from music you won’t be ruining your health and wasting away, you might actually be doing something good for yourself, which is great news for me,  a seriously addicted  music lover. 

A friend recently hijacked me into listening to “Knee Deep” that infectiously feel good song by Zac Brown and Jimmy Buffett.  And although I’m not usually a country fan, I am a closet Parrothead, having once spent a ridiculous night, while I was on a sailing trip in the Caribbean, in the bar on St Bart’s Jimmy wrote Cheeseburger in Paradise”about.  Only the timely intervention of the crew, dragging us back to the boat to sail with the tide, saved us from the less than tender attentions of the gendarmes (St Bart’s is a French protectorate) who were not impressed with our attempt to drink an amount of tequila we thought was necessary to honour Mr. Buffet and dance up and down the streets singing all the Buffet songs we could (barely) remember.  It was a memorable night  . . .but I have seriously digressed.  Or maybe not, my memories of that night are all tied up with my memories of Jimmy Buffett songs and when I hear him singing it always triggers the most enduring, happy memories of that incredible sailing trip.    So I  now find myself walking around, humming about being knee deep in paradise, and it’s a perfect example of the feel good high music can have in our lives.  Take a listen, it’s impossible not to smile and tap your toes – which explains the 5 million plus YouTube views – dopamine running rampant.

And all this scientific inquiry helps explain a lot about my fantastic weekend – my dopamine has been in overdrive with not one, but two, concerts with  my long time favourite band, Blue Rodeo.   The boys were in town for their annual show at Malkin Bowl in Stanley Park and it was just amazing.    They have been playing Malkin Bowl (a lovely outdoor venue in the heart of the park) for about 9 years and in that time I’ve sat through some great weather, but also rain, cold and mud.  This weekend was exceptional September weather – so hot and sunny that even at night you didn’t need a jacket.   Outdoor concert bliss.   And the band played two of the best, most inspired shows I have ever seen  (and I’ve seen a lot . . .check out some of my California road trip blogs). 

One of the really interesting things about following a band over a long period of time is watching the changes they go through.  The ups and the downs, the times when you think (and fear) that they are breaking up and you won’t get to see them again, the long hiatus when it seems like forever since you saw them live and, of course, the amazing performances that remain in memory long after the night has come to a close.    

The shows this weekend saw a reformatted on-stage performance by the band. Greg Keelor has developed a hearing problem that makes it very painful for him to hear loud music, especially electric guitars and drums, so to accommodate that they had Greg doing the acoustic performances and brought in Chris Cripps, who plays with Jim Cuddy on his solo records, to play electric guitar with Jim.  It could have gone either way, but the result was awesome.  Jim and Chris rocked it out, while Greg was at his very, very best singing acoustic and a capella – “Dark Angel“was a standout.   It was great to see them all so energized and having so much fun on stage and that sort of infectious energy transmits out to the crowd.  And although Malkin Bowl seems to draw a fairly stalwart “sit on my butt all night” crowd, there are always a few of us singing and dancing fools that set up our own impromptu dance party on the side.  Made a few new friends, had a lot of fun and when they finally opened up the front of the stage for standing room we were centre stage in the front row.  Awesome.

My favourite performance both nights was Jim singing “After the Rain”, a song I have loved forever.   On Saturday night he talked about  the song being bittersweet for him because it was at Malkin Bowl while singing it several years ago he lost the high range in his voice.  I was at that show and remember it well and for quite some time after that Jim struggled with the falsetto he is famous for.     Fortunately, the wonders of modern surgery worked their magic and Jim is back belting out those high notes with a bravado and confidence that makes me happy all the way to my toes.  Here’s a live video shot handheld at a bar in Atlanta, GA a few years ago, no mixing, no autotune, just a really talented singer hitting it out of the park.

And as if my weekend hadn’t been fun enough – gotta run down to the Zeitgeist Media Festival to catch Gentlemen Prefer Blondes this afternoon.   So much fun, the weekends are just not long enough.   Keeping it real, always.


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