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Beauty and the brain: why we love Beethoven

Beauty is a highly subjective concept. Tastes differ widely among individuals, not least when it comes to music. Even so, there are some pieces of music which have stood the test of time. What makes certain classical compositions resonate so powerfully across the centuries? The answer may lie in the brain.

Our brains crave music

Music seems to be universally significant throughout history and across different cultures, despite having no obvious evolutionary benefit to us as a species; an ear for music is unlikely to have helped our ancestors to reproduce and pass on their genes. This puzzled neuroscientist Valorie Salimpoor so much that she decided to make it the focus of her research. Along with her colleagues at McGill University in Montreal, Salimpoor has discovered that music triggers activity in the nucleus accumbens – the area of the brain that releases the "pleasure chemical" dopamine. Other animals receive this same pleasure hit from food and sex, but we're the only ones who respond to music in this way – and that's not all.

Quoted in Time magazine, Salimpoor says, "Music also activates the amygdala, which is involved with the processing of emotion, as well as areas of the prefrontal cortex involved in abstract decision-making. When we're listening to music, the most advanced areas of the brain tie in to the most ancient.”

Pattern recognition

Salimpoor conducted an experiment in which people's brains were monitored while listening to an unfamiliar piece of music. They were then asked how much they would be prepared to pay for the piece. The scientists found that the subjects were willing to pay more for a piece that triggered both an emotional and an intellectual reward, which Salimpoor believes is to do with our ability to recognize and predict patterns. “As an unfamiliar piece unfolds in time,” she says, “our brains predict how it will continue to unfold.” If a pattern develops in a way which is both in line with our brain's prediction and still in some way novel, we enjoy it “because we've made a kind of intellectual conquest” according to Salimpoor. So music taps into our pattern recognition skills, which have played a huge part in our evolutionary success.

Cutting out the noise

Given that we all crave and respond to music at a neurological level, why do certain pieces stand out as exceptionally beautiful? There is a long-held scientific theory that our brains are hard-wired to take pleasure in simple patterns, while Salimpoor's research suggests that we find an intellectual thrill from patterns which appear complex, but which we can successfully predict.

Dr. Nicholas Hudson conducted an experiment using “lossless” music compression programs to mimic the way our brains compress audio information, reducing it to its simplest form. He compared the amount of “compressibility” of random noise to music from various genres. He found that, while random noise can only be compressed to 86% of its original size, and rock, pop and techno to about 60%, Beethoven's 3rd Symphony could be compressed to 40%. This means that, although the piece appears incredibly complex, our brains are capable of reducing it to a simple – and therefore satisfying – pattern.

Although the piece appears incredibly complex, our brains are capable of reducing it to a simple – and therefore satisfying – pattern

Simplicity is the final achievement

According to Dr. Hudson, “enduring musical masterpieces, despite apparent complexity, possess high compressibility” and it is this compressibility that we respond to. This is something which composers and artists have always known, and is now being confirmed by advanced neuroscience. Centuries before the invention of the MRI scanner, the composer Frédéric Chopin said, “Simplicity is the final achievement. After one has played a vast quantity of notes and more notes, it is simplicity that emerges as the crowning reward of art.”

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