Links Between the Neurobiology of Oxytocin and Human Musicality

Front Hum Neurosci. 2020 Aug 26:14:350. doi: 10.3389/fnhum.2020.00350. eCollection 2020.


The human species possesses two complementary, yet distinct, universal communication systems-language and music. Functional imaging studies have revealed that some core elements of these two systems are processed in closely related brain regions, but there are also clear differences in brain circuitry that likely underlie differences in functionality. Music affects many aspects of human behavior, especially in encouraging prosocial interactions and promoting trust and cooperation within groups of culturally compatible but not necessarily genetically related individuals. Music, presumably via its impact on the limbic system, is also rewarding and motivating, and music can facilitate aspects of learning and memory. In this review these special characteristics of music are considered in light of recent research on the neuroscience of the peptide oxytocin, a hormone that has both peripheral and central actions, that plays a role in many complex human behaviors, and whose expression has recently been reported to be affected by music-related activities. I will first briefly discuss what is currently known about the peptide's physiological actions on neurons and its interactions with other neuromodulator systems, then summarize recent advances in our knowledge of the distribution of oxytocin and its receptor (OXTR) in the human brain. Next, the complex links between oxytocin and various social behaviors in humans are considered. First, how endogenous oxytocin levels relate to individual personality traits, and then how exogenous, intranasal application of oxytocin affects behaviors such as trust, empathy, reciprocity, group conformity, anxiety, and overall social decision making under different environmental conditions. It is argued that many of these characteristics of oxytocin biology closely mirror the diverse effects that music has on human cognition and emotion, providing a link to the important role music has played throughout human evolutionary history and helping to explain why music remains a special prosocial human asset. Finally, it is suggested that there is a potential synergy in combining oxytocin- and music-based strategies to improve general health and aid in the treatment of various neurological dysfunctions.

Keywords: dance; empathy; music; oxytocin; reward; therapy; trust.

Publication types

  • Review