Musical reward prediction errors engage the nucleus accumbens and motivate learning

Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2019 Feb 19;116(8):3310-3315. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1809855116. Epub 2019 Feb 6.


Enjoying music reliably ranks among life's greatest pleasures. Like many hedonic experiences, it engages several reward-related brain areas, with activity in the nucleus accumbens (NAc) most consistently reflecting the listener's subjective response. Converging evidence suggests that this activity arises from musical "reward prediction errors" (RPEs) that signal the difference between expected and perceived musical events, but this hypothesis has not been directly tested. In the present fMRI experiment, we assessed whether music could elicit formally modeled RPEs in the NAc by applying a well-established decision-making protocol designed and validated for studying RPEs. In the scanner, participants chose between arbitrary cues that probabilistically led to dissonant or consonant music, and learned to make choices associated with the consonance, which they preferred. We modeled regressors of trial-by-trial RPEs, finding that NAc activity tracked musically elicited RPEs, to an extent that explained variance in the individual learning rates. These results demonstrate that music can act as a reward, driving learning and eliciting RPEs in the NAc, a hub of reward- and music enjoyment-related activity.

Keywords: abstract reward; fMRI; music; nucleus accumbens; reward prediction errors.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Auditory Perception / physiology*
  • Brain / physiology*
  • Brain Mapping
  • Choice Behavior / physiology
  • Decision Making*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Learning / physiology
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Male
  • Motivation / physiology
  • Music / psychology*
  • Reward
  • Young Adult