Humans experience intense pleasure to certain stimuli, such as food, psychoactive drugs and money; these rewards are largely mediated by dopaminergic activity in the mesolimbic system, which has been implicated in reinforcement and motivation […]. These rewarding stimuli are either biological reinforcers that are necessary for survival, synthetic chemicals that directly promote dopaminergic neurotransmission, or tangible items that are secondary rewards. However, humans have the ability to obtain pleasure from more abstract stimuli, such as music and art, which are not directly essential for survival and cannot be considered to be secondary or conditioned reinforcers. These stimuli have persisted through cultures and generations and are pre-eminent in most people’s lives. […]
Most people agree that music is an especially potent pleasurable stimulus that is frequently used to affect emotional states. […]
Zatorre, Salimpoor et al. (2011), studied the role of dopamine in the experience of musical pleasure. They used positron emission tomography (PET) scanning to estimate dopamine release in the striatum. I’m not an about the the striatal dopaminergic system or positron emission tomography but according to people much more expert than me, this study used a “remarkable" and "exciting" methodology.
Their results provide evidence that pleasure experienced when listening to your favorite music is associated with dopamine activity in the mesolimbic reward system. This is a ancient circuitry that has evolved to reinforce basic biological behaviors with high adaptive value.
That is, in simple. The researchers didn’t explicitly write about music activate the same area in the brain that is activated by sex. To be accurate, this research is not focused on a brain area, but in a chemicals (dopamine).
Now, dopamine is a chemicals released in a great number of rewarding experiences, such as food, sex and drugs. Some research suggest that even aggression is associated with the release of dopamine.
The difference in the case of music (or other aesthetic experiences) is that music is an abstract experience that has not a tangible adaptive value, or at least it has not a obvious adaptive value.
Anyway, when this study has been reported, it was oversimplified (I’m oversemplifying it myself). I agree with Nate Kornell that pointed out two problems in some descriptions of this study (this are not of the research):
Problem 1: When two experiences evoke the same type of brain response, it doesn’t mean they are the same. If I told you that driving and punching both involve hands, would you conclude that punching and driving were linked? What if I told you food and music both involve dopamine?
Furthermore, dopamine is associated with reward; should we be surprised if it’s released by music we enjoy? And this leads to the second problem.
Problem 2: Everything you experience has an impact on your brain […]. Often, stories about neuroscience seem to be saying, basically, “there’s a brain area for x.” In this case, the reporting is focussed on a chemical, not a brain area, but the logic is the same. Is it exciting that there’s a chemical involved in musical experience? There are chemicals (i.e., neurotransmitters) involved in ALL experiences. But “there’s a brain area” stories continue to make headlines. (via Sex, Drugs, and Rock and Roll: Problems in Neuroscience Reporting)