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What Happens to Your Brain When the Beat Drops?

You know the feeling: you’re on the dancefloor and the music cuts back, then starts to build slowly.

As it grows a tingling sensation trickles down your spine. Your heart drums with anticipation.

Breathing gets faster.

The music climaxes… then, the bass drops!

It’s a dizzying, ecstatic moment, but have you ever thought about what is going on in your brain to provoke that physiological reaction?

It’s a question music neuroscience student Kiralee Musgrove is exploring with her PhD on craving the drop.

First, here’s the scientific explanation of “a drop”.

“It tends to follow the breakdown of the music, and then the buildup,” Kiralee tells Hack.

edm workout

“The buildup is where the dj [producer] is adding layer upon layer of instrument, the rhythms sound compressed, the volume’s going up and finally you get to the point where the dj drops the bass back into the music.”

Kiralee’s study is looking closely at the relationship between the anticipation of this build-up and the reward we get at the resolution when the bass kicks in. She’s focusing on electronic dance music (EDM) because of its formulaic structure.

Her theory is that the desire you feel as the musical tension builds is processed in the brain the same as other cravings, like those associated with eating disorders, drug addictions, self-harm urges and even OCD. Thanks to the predictability of EDM, we know a drop is coming and we’re anticipating the resolution to the build, and that heightens those cravings.

“We think that music that can elicit really intense craving is then more likely to elicit more pleasure when we hear the drop,” she says.

“That’s the theory anyway.”

As music lovers, we know music has a profound impact on our emotions and can overtake you to make listening a whole body experience, but the way music is translated in the brain is still a bit of a mystery.

“Music is different to other audio stimuli, so it’s not like language, it tends to light up our brains in a different way… music neuroscience is trying to understand why we process music differently and why it’s this whole brain phenomenon.”

One region of the brain that’s activated by listening to music we like is the primitive part of the brain that processes reward, known as the nucleus accumbens, which is surprising when you consider why humans feel pleasure.

“Pleasure rewards us for doing evolutionarily good things, adaptive things, like eating food or having sex, we get pleasure from those things for a reason,” Kiralee explains.

“But with music, it’s quite curious. We’re not actually sure why we should elicit pleasure from music because we don’t need it to stay alive.”

Kiralee is hoping her study will show that listening to EDM can help people with their cravings.

“We might not be able to get rid of the acute craving states for these people but we might be able to alleviate the cravings to the point they can go and engage in therapy.”


Want to feel how “the drop” can inspire your workout?  Try the BeatActive app for free by clicking the link below to the app store.