Modulating musical reward sensitivity up and down with transcranial magnetic stimulation

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Humans have the unique capacity to experience pleasure from aesthetic stimuli, such as art and music. Recent neuroimaging findings with music have led to a model in which mesolimbic striatal circuits interact with cortical systems to generate expectancies leading to pleasure1,2. However, neuroimaging approaches are correlational. Here, we provide causal evidence for the model by combining transcranial magnetic stimulation over the left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex to directly modulate fronto-striatal function3 bidirectionally together with measures of pleasure and motivation during music listening. Our results show that perceived pleasure, psychophysiological measures of emotional arousal, and the monetary value assigned to music, are all significantly increased by exciting fronto-striatal pathways, whereas inhibition of this system leads to decreases in all of these variables compared with sham stimulation. These findings support the hypothesis that fronto-striatal function causally mediates both the affective responses and motivational aspects of music-induced reward, and provide insights into how aesthetic responses emerge in the human brain.

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R.J.Z. is supported by funds from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, and the Canada Fund for Innovation. A.D is funded by the CIHR Foundation Grant. E.M.-H. was supported by the Jeanne Timmins Costello Fellowship and the CIBC Fellowship in Brain Imaging from the Montreal Neurological Institute. The funders had no role in the conceptualization, design, data collection, analysis, decision to publish or preparation of the manuscript.

Author information


  1. Montreal Neurological Institute, McGill University, Montreal, QC, Canada

    • Ernest Mas-Herrero
    • , Alain Dagher
    •  & Robert J. Zatorre
  2. International Laboratory for Brain, Music, and Sound Research (BRAMS), Montreal, QC, Canada

    • Ernest Mas-Herrero
    •  & Robert J. Zatorre
  3. Centre for Research on Brain, Language and Music (CRBLM), Montreal, QC, Canada

    • Ernest Mas-Herrero
    •  & Robert J. Zatorre


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E.M.-H., A.D. and R.J.Z. designed the experiment. E.M.-H. ran and analysed the data (with the supervision of A.D. and R.J.Z). All authors wrote the manuscript.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Robert J. Zatorre.

Electronic supplementary material

  1. Supplementary Information

    Supplementary Methods, Supplementary Tables 1,2; Supplementary Figures 1,2

  2. Life Sciences Reporting Summary