Victoria NeuroNotes

Into the Gray

Your Brain On Music & Two Emotive Mindgasm Tunes Without Conceptual Content


“Music affects deep emotional centers in the brain.  A single sound tone is not really pleasurable in itself; but if these sounds are organized over time in some sort of arrangement, it’s amazingly powerful.” Neuroscientist Valorie Salimpoor

While listening to their favorite piece of music, Salimpoor and her colleagues hooked participants up to an fMRI machine and recorded their brain activity.  Well, surprise, surprise (winks at Ark). During peak emotional moments in the songs identified by the listeners, dopamine (a neurotransmitter) was released in the nucleus accumbens.  The NA is a structure deep within an older part of our brain.

The caudate nucleus, another part of the brain which is involved in the anticipation of pleasure, also releases dopamine just before those peak emotional moments in a song.


Photo credit:

According to the study, “Anatomically distinct dopamine release during anticipation and experience of peak emotion to music” published in the journal Nature Neuroscience, music can arouse feelings of euphoria and craving, similar to tangible rewards that involve the striatal dopaminergic system such as sex, drugs, and food.  Another interesting finding suggests that the interactions between the nucleus accumbens and the auditory cortex creates expectations of how musical sounds should unfold based on what is learned and stored in our auditory cortex.  Our emotions result from the violation or fulfillment of these expectations.


When Music Makes Love Using Emotive Language Without Conceptual Content

One of my favorite post-rock bands is from Iceland.  Sigur Rós.  In some of their songs they use non-literal language that forms the unintelligible “lyrics” sung by the band.

It’s called Hopelandic (English translation), a.k.a., Vonlenska.  It consists of emotive, non-lexical vocables.  In effect, Hopelandic (Vonlenska) uses the melodic and rhythmic elements of singing without the conceptual content of language.

This type of music has no fixed syntax and differs from constructed languages that can be used for communication. It focuses entirely on the sounds of language, lacking grammar and distinct words.

This track below, “Milan”, is one of those tunes that resonates with every cell in my body.  Seriously, there are no words to describe how it makes me feel during those peaks of non-lexical passion.

Sigur Ros Live at the Wolves Civic Hall, United Kingdom, March 5, 2013 — Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Album Title “Takk…” (translation-  “Thanks…”)

OMGawd…!!!  ❤

Another example of emotive, non-lexical vocables would be from one of my all-time favorites — The Great Gig in the Sky, by Pink Floyd.


In a study, “From Vivaldi to Beatles and back: predicting lateralized brain responses to music”, participants were also hooked up to monitor brain activity.  The researchers introduced different styles of songs. They found that music impacts multiple centers of the brain simultaneously.  Each style of music made its own pattern.

Uptempo songs created one kind of pattern while slower songs create another, lyrical songs, another, and so on. Remarkably, even if people didn’t like the songs or didn’t have a lot of musical expertise, their brains still looked surprisingly similar to the brains of people who did.

heart-2Humans are constantly making reward-related predictions to survive.  Now we have neurobiological evidence  showing that people also make predictions when listening to music, even if we’ve never heard the music before.  When arranged together, pattern recognition and prediction of an otherwise simple set of stimuli can become so powerful that it makes us happy or bring us to tears, as well as communicate and experience some of the most intense, complex emotions and thoughts.


Benjamin Britten, an English composer, conductor and pianist, once said:

“It is cruel, you know, that music should be so beautiful. It has the beauty of loneliness of pain: of strength and freedom. The beauty of disappointment and never-satisfied love. The cruel beauty of nature and everlasting beauty of monotony.”

Gotta mindgasm tune you’d like to share?

emoticon music

Other references:

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Author: NeuroNotes

Victoria predominately blogs about religion, the psychological techniques used to indoctrinate, and the brain's role in religious-type experiences and attachment.

102 thoughts on “Your Brain On Music & Two Emotive Mindgasm Tunes Without Conceptual Content

  1. The Album Leaf and Jonsi & Alex are both bands along the same vein that I love. Wonderful and informative post, V.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. As far as a specific song: Johann Johannsson’s Fordlandia is perfection. No vocalization though.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. As a fan of Sigur Rós I approve this message 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  4. As we’re talking about (listening to) strangely brilliant Nordic music, try this on for size. There’s something wonderfully strange in it

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Certainly we can’t neglect the classical guitar —

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Here you go

    — :// —

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Here, run this in the background while you do other things – it good for about two and a half hours:


  8. Music has been a focal point of my life since high school. I play several instruments, sing and teach guitar. I’ve written and recorded many songs (amateur, not professional) and there is nothing like the feeling recording your own material. Somehow I wish there were worlds as beautiful as the ones we imagine when we hear good music. It brings out our deepest emotions, even the ones we hide so well.

    My taste in music is so eclectic that I could never sum it up in a short comment. Pretty much a good song in any style sits well with me. The genre I’m most at home with however is hard rock/metal, which is what inspired me to learn guitar in the beginning. Lately I’ve been listening to artists like Disturbed & Shinedown. Bands I would have never listened to as a Christian, but I feel at liberty now to not feel guilty about music like that.

    On a more universally palatable level there are many songs and bands that I love. One band that is close to my heart is The Fray. I love Sam Smith. Daughtry is good. Stevie Wonder was a genius. Creative folk/country/indie like The Civil Wars. Christian rock bands like The Almost, Sent By Ravens and Secret & Whisper have always blown me away; I like Switchfoot too. Other rock bands like Alter Bridge, Aranda. Sixpence None The Richer, OneRepublic, Lana Del Ray, and Florence + the Machine (one of the best artists around right now IMO) Yeah, random and eclectic all the time! haha. Loving the really creative electronic music too right now.

    Here’s a great song you may have never heard. It’s by The Civil Wars.


    • TA — I loved reading your comment. Really meaty — right up my alley. 🙂 That is awesome that you’ve written and recorded many songs. Have you uploaded any on Youtube? If so, do share your channel.

      “My taste in music is so eclectic…”

      Same here. I grew up in a musical family. When I moved to Washington, DC after school, I worked for the government during the week and did gigs in a rock band on the weekends. Vocals. Made more money during the weekend (two nights) than I did the whole week working for the government. Had a blast. That was, of course, before I got evangelized.

      I had not heard of that particular Civil Wars song. They are a dynamic duo. Hope they are getting along better now.

      I absolutely love what you wrote here:

      ” I wish there were worlds as beautiful as the ones we imagine when we hear good music. It brings out our deepest emotions, even the ones we hide so well.”

      Truer words have never been spoken. Growing up, my dad loved listening to instrumental music a lot, and I would make movies/stories — in my mind based on the imagery that came to me while listening. I still find myself doing that and it doesn’t have to be instrumental.

      Here’s a favorite of mine that is representative (to me) of waking up from my religious stupor.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Yes, I have a Soundcloud. Once again, not professional, but I have a few I am proud of, such as this one I did vocals on:

        Wow! I had no idea. Sounds like you could’ve gone somewhere if you were able to make significant money singing (I mean seriously, like who makes money in music?). Of course a government gig ain’t too bad either! 😉

        Yes, Christians can’t sing them satanic pop songs with their seductive pulsating effects. The demonic presence is especially strong in Lady Gaga tunes.

        Haha, just messing around, but really, some Christians think there is an inherent difference between mainstream and Christian music. I wasn’t allowed to listen to non-Christian music as a kid. Once I hit my teens I was able to at least get into Christian rock and metal, and slowly get into some secular artists.

        Yes, I hope TCW get’s back to making music. I don’t know if the rumors are true of bad feelings, but it seems something was up. You know Joy Williams was a Christian artist before joining TCW (I’m sure she has an interesting story; maybe even a deconvert) Love them.

        I’ll check out the song!

        Liked by 1 person

        • “Yes, Christians can’t sing them satanic pop songs with their seductive pulsating effects. The demonic presence is especially strong in Lady Gaga tunes.”

          LMAO — I can remember the days when I believed that nonsense spewing from megalomaniac preachers. Just goes to show you the power of indoctrination. If you want to have a good laugh and eye roll watch “Hell’s Bell’s — The Danger of Rock ‘N Roll”

          This was shown in church — not just one denomination I was a member of, but several. Watching it though the eyes of an unbeliever is hilarious.

          Like you, I only listened to Christian music during the years I was involved in evangelical Christianity. Dog forbid you should open the door for the debil to enter in, and secular music was one of those doors. Yet, the most “evil” I was ever exposed to was in fundamentalville. 😉

          TA, you are quite talented. I really enjoyed the tune. Thanks so much for sharing. I’ve shared it with others.


          • LOL! Hey, at least it was an excuse to jam to AC/DC in church; which is always a good thing. lol. At first I was literally trying to figure out whether it was a spoof or real.

            Yes, as a musician I quickly started to not understand the dichotomy. I mean, if I played guitar, it wasn’t Christian or non. And if I added ambiguous lyrics, would it be sacred or secular? lol

            Thanks! I appreciate you taking the time to listen. 🙂


      • I love the Arcade Fire tune btw. My sisters introduced me to it. Good stuff.

        Liked by 1 person

  9. Wow! 😮

    I need more of this first. When I come down from this _____gasm I’ll try to type in my song.


  10. I have a quirky musical habit: I tend to have one or two artists I listen to exclusively while I write. One of my books was set in France and during the entire time I wrote it I listened to The Picnic Suite by Claude Bolling.
    I have the LP and at the time didn’t think to look for it on Youtube! Ooops – so getting up every 20 minutes to turn the record was interesting!

    I am doing a few rewrites of a fantasy trilogy and I am hooked on a Stones Greatest hits! The drum intro to Honky Tonk Women just set the mood for me to hit those keys! lol!
    The first book I wrote, I listened almost exclusively to two 3 Doors Down Albums I have on my hard drive throughout, and this song in particular is my favorite.

    Really goosebump stuff.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Great tune, Ark. It never ceases to amaze me how inspiring and even healing music can be. I also don’t know how I would have gotten through some of the most challenging and difficult times of my life without music as my faithful companion — always at my beck and call.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. I tend to like big music, symphonies, piano concertos or choral works. But, I also like Satie for his pure simplicity, and Burl Ives or Joan Baez will always bring me to tears. Vaughan Williams also does it for me, with his ‘harmony is for immortal souls’, and beethoven’s mass with the most sublime top A.

    While I’ve sung Orff’s Carmina Burana, his lesser known work Catulli Carmina is an interesting one. Much more simple and primitive. I’ve not added the link, but you can look it up.

    Note to WordPress: please stop unfollowing me from my friends. It is really irritating.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Now I may be completely off base, but when you talked music activating our nature of being predictive. I wonder how closely related that is to our nature to make type I (false positive) errors. We make them all the time, but we also love doing it. We find patterns where they don’t exist, and it almost seems unconsciously that our mind actively searches for patterns in music. Giving us a bit of a rush when our brain thinks we have it. Maybe that’s why they say listening to classical music makes you smarter because the patterns are not so easily apparent in many classical music pieces and our brain works harder to sort all the notes out. I have often wondered why there are certain tunes that are catchy. What is it about them that makes a large group of people like them or easily tap their toe to them. Perhaps in such cases the mind is able to catch the pattern easier, making it happier. 🙂 I know I have probably just made you cringe several times with this hypothesis, but it sure is interesting to think about. And I do love music. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • I certainly can’t speak for her, but I found your hypothesis intriguing, and something I’ll think hard about the next time I listen to music. Thanks for the insight.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Hey Swarn, great to see you here and thanks for your hypothesis and feedback. There are a couple of links/references I posted in the OP that helps explain what is it about these catchy tunes that makes people like them or easily tap their toes to them. I’ll post an excerpt from the first reference here:

      “When analyzing the brain scans of the participants, she (Neuroscientist Valorie Salimpoor) found that when they enjoyed a new song enough to buy it, dopamine was again released in the nucleus accumbens. But, she also found increased interaction between the nucleus accumbens and higher, cortical structures of the brain involved in pattern recognition, musical memory, and emotional processing.

      This finding suggested to her that when people listen to unfamiliar music, their brains process the sounds through memory circuits, searching for recognizable patterns to help them make predictions about where the song is heading. If music is too foreign-sounding, it will be hard to anticipate the song’s structure, and people won’t like it—meaning, no dopamine hit. But, if the music has some recognizable features—maybe a familiar beat or melodic structure—people will more likely be able to anticipate the song’s emotional peaks and enjoy it more. The dopamine hit comes from having their predictions confirmed—or violated slightly, in intriguing ways. “It’s kind of like a roller coaster ride,” she says, “where you know what’s going to happen, but you can still be pleasantly surprised and enjoy it.”

      You wrote: ” Maybe that’s why they say listening to classical music makes you smarter because the patterns are not so easily apparent in many classical music pieces and our brain works harder to sort all the notes out.”

      A meta-analysis of sixteen different studies confirmed that listening to classical music does lead to a temporary improvement in the ability to manipulate shapes mentally, but the benefits are short-lived and it doesn’t make us more intelligent. The same temporary improvement was also noted after hearing a passage read out aloud from a Stephen King novel. The researchers hypothesize that enjoyment and engagement are key, rather than the exact notes you hear. The article further states:

      “Learning to play a musical instrument can have a beneficial effect on your brain. Jessica Grahn, a cognitive scientist at Western University in London, Ontario says that a year of piano lessons, combined with regular practice can increase IQ by as much as three points. So listening to Mozart won’t do you or your children any harm and could be the start of a life-long love of classical music. But unless you and your family have some urgent imaginary origami to do, the chances are that sticking on a sonata is not going to make you better at anything.

      I find it fascinating and ironic that you mentioned type I false positive error, because from what I gather, the so called Mozart Effect appears to have been just that, leading one (many) to conclude that a supposed effect or relationship exists (increasing intelligence) when in fact, that’s not what the studies showed. The term “Mozart Effect” was never mentioned in the original study, and the study also didn’t include children.

      I really enjoy reading your in depth comments. Hope you have a great weekend. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      • What I find strange is that to us of the Western World, Japanese and Chinese music sounds so unfamiliar to us, much as your comment suggests:
        “If music is too foreign-sounding, it will be hard to anticipate the song’s structure, and people won’t like it—meaning, no dopamine hit.”

        Yet by far, more Japanese and Chinese music students gravitate toward Western Symphonic music, than certainly, the number of Western World music students gravitate toward the Oriental. I can’t help wondering why that is. Some prestige factor, perhaps?


          • That’s an interesting history, and certainly generates an interest in locating some examples of Shidaiqu, but doesn’t actually address my question of why they are able to bypass your “if music is too foreign-sounding, it will be hard to anticipate the song’s structure, and people won’t like it” and gravitating toward Western Symphonic music, while seem to be falling victim to it. Not doubting your theory, just asking why it shouldn’t work both ways.


            • meant to say, “while we seem to be falling victim to it” – WordPress ate my homework —


            • Well, it’s not exactly like symphonic music is foreign there as it been around for quite sometime.

              “Traditional Chinese orchestras, comprised of percussion instruments with a few stringed instruments, are centuries old. In 1879, the first Western-styled orchestra appeared in China,”

              Btw, I’m not a big fan of Western Symphonic music except the slower, emotive kind that’s not so busy and chaotic. It can rake on my nerves after a while, just like fast-paced Jazz can.


      • Damn…I’ve been caught not reading all the links and am behaving much like my students! So thank you for quoting some relevant parts. 🙂

        I guess I wasn’t completely off-base though. I guess it makes some sense that the whole classical music leads to a more intelligent person is a bit of myth, but my thinking was this: that if music in some way represents data and the mind is constantly trying to analyze it for patterns it sort of represents a good mental exercise. I guess I believe our brains like to be stimulate and analyze things even if we sometimes aren’t conscious that this is what we are doing. While there should of course be many factors that impact intelligent, it seems that exercising the brain through music might not be a bad thing. And I guess I wouldn’t necessarily think that music might not be any different than a story with a complex plot, a poem with plenty of imagery and metaphor, or looking at art might not have similar impacts on our exercising our brains.

        The influx of dopamine does conform to my thinking in some ways, even though I didn’t explicitly say it. For instance we know that when beliefs are formed that reinforcing those beliefs also releases dopamine. When neural pathways get formed, reinforcing those pathways is pleasurable. We feel pleasure in finding information that conforms to what we expect, even if what we are reading or hearing is balanced and has some contradictory information, we would rather ignore that and stick with what we think we know. And many beliefs are formed based on our predilection to find patterns in things. And finding patterns is satisfying and exciting. People get excited over coincidences thinking them to be meaningful. People get excited over instances that seem to support what they already believe about things like prayer, or naturopathy or whatever. Patterns are often more difficult to detect than they seem, and so we also make a lot of mistakes. But whether there are actually patterns or we make a false positive, as we long as we believe there is a true pattern this will be pleasurable and so when music meets our expectations it seems sensible that dopamine would be involved.


        • “I guess I believe our brains like to be stimulate and analyze things even if we sometimes aren’t conscious that this is what we are doing. While there should of course be many factors that impact intelligent, it seems that exercising the brain through music might not be a bad thing.”

          I couldn’t agree more. Swarn, sorry it took so long to get back with you. Here’s one of the studies I mentioned to you on another blog post:

          Music facilitate the neurogenesis, regeneration and repair of neurons.


          Experience has shown that therapy using music for therapeutic purposes has certain effects on neuropsychiatric disorders (both functional and organic disorders). However, the mechanisms of action underlying music therapy remain unknown, and scientific clarification has not advanced. While that study disproved the Mozart effect, the effects of music on the human body and mind were not disproved. In fact, more scientific studies on music have been conducted in recent years, mainly in the field of neuroscience, and the level of interest among researchers is increasing. The results of past studies have clarified that music influences and affects cranial nerves in humans from fetus to adult.

          The effects of music at a cellular level have not been clarified, and the mechanisms of action for the effects of music on the brain have not been elucidated. We propose that listening to music facilitates the neurogenesis, the regeneration and repair of cerebral nerves by adjusting the secretion of steroid hormones, ultimately leading to cerebral plasticity. Music affects levels of such steroids as cortisol (C), testosterone (T) and estrogen (E), and we believe that music also affects the receptor genes related to these substances, and related proteins. In the prevention of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia, hormone replacement therapy has been shown to be effective, but at the same time, side effects have been documented, and the clinical application of hormone replacement therapy is facing a serious challenge. Conversely, music is noninvasive, and its existence is universal and mundane. Thus, if music can be used in medical care, the application of such a safe and inexpensive therapeutic option is limitless.

          Liked by 1 person

          • Thank you so much for going to the trouble of finding the article and sharing the information. That’s really fascinating stuff. I am a bit like a kid in a candy store when I get to talk to someone who knows a lot about neuroscience, so you definitely don’t want to get into the habit of responding to me too quickly. 🙂

            Liked by 1 person

            • I suspect that since you are immersed in the world of academia, you probably know more about neuroscience than I do, but I do have a background in neurotechnology. As I mentioned in my about page, I am very interested in and passionate about neuroscience because this field has provided answers to questions I had the better part of my life. Answers that no religion ever gave me, that’s for sure. It also helped to restore my faith in humanity, whereas religion did just the opposite. I never grow tired of reading the research. My massive files can attest to that. 😀

              Here’s something you’ll probably find interesting.


              Liked by 1 person

              • Victoria, thank you for that article, it was very interesting. While I agree that there is probably much more benefit to learning to play an instrument than passive listening, as the article says I think just exposing children to music for music’s sake is a benefit no matter what it might do for their intelligence. When my son hears music it is amazing how he has a natural tendency to move to the music. I think dance might be sort of overlooked in music studies, because I believe dancing to music should also have similar benefits to the brain as moves get increasingly more complex and tempo increases. Very interesting. Well I am just a lowly Atmospheric Scientists, but like you I have also tried read more and more about neuroscience. Reading Steven Pinker’s, “How the Mind Works” was a huge eye opener for me, even though I was already atheist, I think that I was one of those people who thought the brain was just a total fucking mystery, but it turns out while there are still tons of unanswered questions we know a lot and this fMRI technology is showing us some pretty amazing stuff. Another important book to me was “The Believing Brain” by Michael Shermer who is a cognitive scientist. Understand how belief works in the brain explains a lot about people who hold strong beliefs.


    • Btw, Swarn, would love for you to share one of your favorite emotive tunes.

      Liked by 1 person

  13. Are you looking for just a musical piece or any song that strikes an emotional response in me? I guess I tend to be more of a lyrics person, although there is a lot of Indian classical music that appeals to me emotionally which either has no words or lyrics I can’t understand as they are in another language. Not sure how easy it will be to find a link to those. I like songs that have both beautiful music and lyrics with depth. One of my favorite quotes by Poe, which are featured on the Alan Parson’s Project first album called Tales of Mystery and Imagination go:

    “Shadows of shadows passing. It is now 1831, and as always, I am absorbed with a delicate thought. It is how poetry has indefinite sensations, to which end, music is an essential. Since the comprehension of sweet sound is our most indefinite conception, music when combined with a pleasurable idea is poetry. Music without the idea is simply music. Without music or an intriguing idea, colour become pallor, man becomes carcass, home becomes catacomb, and the dead are but for a moment motionless.”

    To any lover of music you have no posed a question that requires great thought, but I shall await to see what exactly you meant by “emotive tunes” before posting. 🙂


    • Swarn, anything music that “takes you there” — moves you to the core.

      Btw, I love The Alan Parsons Project


      • Well of course different songs spurn different types of emotions and sometimes it just depends on what mood you’re in when you hear it too. But of all the songs I had to choose from there is one song that I put above others for several reasons 1) This song never fails to make me feel emotional. My eyes are always watering a little when I hear it, and it makes me straight up cry on occasion. To me there is something special about a song that can do that. 2) It is the perfect embodiment of what I call sweet sorrow. It’s like I’m feeling elation at the same time I am feeling sadness. 3) The lyrics are incredibly beautiful, and I don’t maybe it’s because the university life (I’ve spent the last 24 years of my life in university as a student or professor) and it’s such a transient lifestyle. Friends leave, or you leave, students come in, students graduate and move on. And so you learn to appreciate the times you had with people you care about even when it can’t last. 4) The voice is haunting and mellow, and the music solemn, but with an air of ascendance to it.

        And if you are a fan of the Alan Parson’s Project you may know the song. It is Old and Wise from their Eye in The Sky album. The videos for it all are homemade, so I suggest closing your eyes the first time through. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

        • I just loved that you shared what this song means to you. I can see why it does. What you shared about your academic life is something my brother-in-law can very much relate too. He’s been a professor for close to 25 years now. He is passionate about teaching and has always invested a lot in his students which nurtured connections, friendships. You gave me a perspective and insight regarding my BIL that I’d not realized until tonight. Thank you. I’m going to share this with him. He really likes The Alan Parsons Project. 🙂

          ♩ ♪ ♫ ♬ ♩ ♪ ♫ ♬ ♩ ♪ ♫ ♬♩ ♪ ♫ ♬♩ ♪ ♫ ♬♩ ♪ ♫ ♬

          As far as my eyes can see
          There are shadows approaching me

          And to those I left behind
          I wanted you to know
          You’ve always shared my deepest thoughts
          You follow where I go

          And, oh, when I’m old and wise
          Bitter words mean little to me
          Autumn winds will blow right through me

          And someday in the mist of time
          When they asked me if I knew you
          I’d smile and say you were a friend of mine

          And the sadness would be lifted from my eyes
          Oh, when I’m old and wise

          As far as my eyes can see
          There are shadows surrounding me

          And to those I leave behind
          I want you all to know
          You’ve always shared my darkest hours
          I’ll miss you when I go

          And, oh, when I’m old and wise
          Heavy words that tossed and blew me
          Like autumn winds will blow right through me

          And someday in the mist of time
          When they ask you if you knew me
          Remember that you were a friend of mine

          As the final curtain falls before my eyes
          Oh, when I’m old and wise

          As far as my eyes can see

          Liked by 1 person

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