Music is a powerful tool to enhance neuroplasticity in the brain. Music therapists are especially skilled at using music to change nonmusic behavior and are aware that processes governing the change in behavior are due to changes in the brain. However, there has been limited explanation regarding exactly what neural mechanisms may underlie these changes.

In this paper, a neuroplasticity model of music therapy has been proposed and examples of how to apply this model have also been provided. Three principles, increase in dopamine, neural synchrony, and a clear signal, can be used to explain why music therapy works. It is important to note that the proposed model is only a theory, and much more research is needed. In any case, it is hoped that the model will provide a method to effectively communicate the amazing potential of music therapy to change neural connectivity.

Oxford University Press: Journal of Music Therapy,
Volume 51, Issue 3, Pages 211–227
Exploring a Neuroplasticity Model of Music Therapy
By Elizabeth L. Stegemöller, PhD, MT-BC
Fall 2014

More than a decade ago, our research team used brain imaging to show that music that people described as highly emotional engaged the reward system deep in their brains — activating subcortical nuclei known to be important in reward, motivation and emotion.

Subsequently we found that listening to what might be called “peak emotional moments” in music — that moment when you feel a “chill” of pleasure to a musical passage — causes the release of the neurotransmitter dopamine, an essential signaling molecule in the brain.

When pleasurable music is heard, dopamine is released in the striatum — an ancient part of the brain found in other vertebrates as well — which is known to respond to naturally rewarding stimuli like food and sex and which is artificially targeted by drugs like cocaine and amphetamine.

New York Times: Why Music Makes Our Brain Sing
By Robert J. Zatorre and Valorie N. Salimpoor
7 June 2013

Intensely pleasurable responses to music correlate with activity in brain regions implicated in reward and emotion

We used positron emission tomography to study neural mechanisms underlying intensely pleasant emotional responses to music. Cerebral blood flow changes were measured in response to subject-selected music that elicited the highly pleasurable experience of “shivers-down-the-spine” or “chills.” Subjective reports of chills were accompanied by changes in heart rate, electromyogram, and respiration. As intensity of these chills increased, cerebral blood flow increases and decreases were observed in brain regions thought to be involved in reward/motivation, emotion, and arousal, including ventral striatum, midbrain, amygdala, orbitofrontal cortex, and ventral medial prefrontal cortex. These brain structures are known to be active in response to other euphoria-inducing stimuli, such as food, sex, and drugs of abuse. This finding links music with biologically relevant, survival-related stimuli via their common recruitment of brain circuitry involved in pleasure and reward.

PNAS: Intensely pleasurable responses to music correlate with activity in brain regions implicated in reward and emotion
Anne J. Blood and Robert J. Zatorre
25 September 2001

The music we like encourages the release of dopamine, a hormone related to the sense of well-being and also released when we eat or have sex.

Music is also used for therapeutic purposes. Music therapy is defined as: the use of music and/or its elements (sound, rhythm, melody and harmony) to facilitate and promote communication, learning, mobilization, expression, organization or other relevant therapeutic objectives, in order to attend the physical, psychic, social and cognitive needs.

EmotionalApps: Why do we like music so much?
By Martin Sanchez
12 April 2017

Music, an abstract stimulus, can arouse feelings of euphoria and craving, similar to tangible rewards that involve the striatal dopaminergic system.

Using the neurochemical specificity of [11C]raclopride positron emission tomography scanning, combined with psychophysiological measures of autonomic nervous system activity, we found endogenous dopamine release in the striatum at peak emotional arousal during music listening. To examine the time course of dopamine release, we used functional magnetic resonance imaging with the same stimuli and listeners, and found a functional dissociation: the caudate was more involved during the anticipation and the nucleus accumbens was more involved during the experience of peak emotional responses to music. These results indicate that intense pleasure in response to music can lead to dopamine release in the striatal system. Notably, the anticipation of an abstract reward can result in dopamine release in an anatomical pathway distinct from that associated with the peak pleasure itself. Our results help to explain why music is of such high value across all human societies.

Nature Research Journal: Anatomically distinct dopamine release during anticipation and experience of peak emotion to music
By Valorie N
Salimpoor, Mitchel Benovoy, Kevin Larcher, Alain Dagher & Robert J Zatorre
09 January 2011

Although the neural underpinnings of music cognition have been widely studied in the last 5 years, relatively little is known about the neuroscience underlying emotional reactions that music induces in listeners. Many people spend a significant amount of time listening to music, and its emotional power is assumed but not well understood. Here, we use functional and effective connectivity analyses to show for the first time that listening to music strongly modulates activity in a network of mesolimbic structures involved in reward processing including the nucleus accumbens (NAc) and the ventral tegmental area (VTA), as well as the hypothalamus and insula, which are thought to be involved in regulating autonomic and physiological responses to rewarding and emotional stimuli. Responses in the NAc and the VTA were strongly correlated pointing to an association between dopamine release and NAc response to music. Responses in the NAc and the hypothalamus were also strongly correlated across subjects, suggesting a mechanism by which listening to pleasant music evokes physiological reactions. Effective connectivity confirmed these findings, and showed significant VTA-mediated interaction of the NAc with the hypothalamus, insula, and orbitofrontal cortex.

The enhanced functional and effective connectivity between brain regions mediating reward, autonomic, and cognitive processing provides insight into understanding why listening to music is one of the most rewarding and pleasurable human experiences.

NeuroImage Volume 28, Issue 1, Pages 175-184
The rewards of music listening: Response and physiological connectivity of the mesolimbic system
By V. Menon and D.J. Levitin
15 October 2005

Music is used to regulate mood and arousal in everyday life and to promote physical and psychological health and well-being in clinical settings.

However, scientific inquiry into the neurochemical effects of music is still in its infancy. In this review, we evaluate the evidence that music improves health and well-being through the engagement of neurochemical systems for reward, motivation, and pleasure; stress and arousal; immunity; and social affiliation.

Trends in Cognitive Sciences: The neurochemistry of music
Volume 17, Issue 4, Pages 179-193
By Mona Lisa Chanda and Daniel J. Levitin
April 2013

Music listening and music making activities are powerful tools to engage multisensory and motor networks, induce changes within these networks, and foster links between distant, but functionally related brain regions with continued and life-long musical practice.

These multimodal effects of music together with music's ability to tap into the emotion and reward system in the brain can be used to facilitate and enhance therapeutic approaches geared toward rehabilitating and restoring neurological dysfunctions and impairments of an acquired or congenital brain disorders.

Progress in Brain Research
Volume 217, Pages 237-252
Chapter 12 - Apollo's gift: new aspects of neurologic music therapy
By Eckart Altenmüller and Gottfried Schlaug