Dopamine, Richard Wagner, and the Love Death

On the interplay between art, emotions, and our brains that construct them

“‘Tristan und Isolde’ is the central work of all music history, the hub of the wheel… I have spent my life since I first read it, trying to solve it. It is incredibly prophetic.”
- Leonard Bernstein

Richard Wagner’s opera Tristan and Isolde from 1865 was one of the most important events in the history of classical music. Taking up the medieval story of the star-crossed lovers Tristan and Isolde that fall intensely in love after accidentally drinking a love potion, Wagner transformed the material into a spiritual reflection on love, death, and transcendence.

There is no country, no town, no village that I can call my own. Everything is alien to me and I often gaze around, yearning for a glimpse of the land of Nirvāṇa. But Nirvāṇa quickly turns back into ‘Tristan’; you know the Buddhist theory of the origin of the world. A breath clouds the clear expanse of heaven: it swells and grows denser, and finally the whole world stands before me again in all its impenetrable solidity.
- Richard Wagner

Wagner’s opera is not only great for its expressiveness and profundity, but for using dissonance in a novel way, opening the gates to the late romantic dissolution of harmonic boundaries. More specifically, the first notes from its prelude feature the famous Tristan chord:

In the words of Brian Magee:

The first chord of Tristan, known simply as “the Tristan chord”, remains the most famous single chord in the history of music. It contains within itself not one but two dissonances, thus creating within the listener a double desire, agonizing in its intensity, for resolution. The chord to which it then moves resolves one of these dissonances but not the other, thus providing resolution- but-not-resolution.
- Brian Magee

In the rest of this article, I want to connect this sense of agonizing desire that pervades the opera Tristan and Isolde with the role the neurotransmitter dopamine plays in shaping our daily desires, musing about some fascinating parallels between art, emotions, and our brains that construct them.

Dopamine has been called the “molecule of more” in the very appropriately titled book The Molecule of More by David Lieberman and Michael Long.

Dopamine might very well be our most important neurotransmitter, being involved in a huge number of functions, in our addictions, in our ambitions, in many of our mental health issues, ranging from schizophrenia to ADHD, and in our faculty to build models of the world.

In the middle of the 20th century, dopamine was considered to be a pleasure molecule, and it’s still frequently displayed as such in popular culture, but this is actually far from the truth. Dopamine is much more about reward prediction errors. It is about anticipating the pleasure of something unexpected that could happen. It is about, in the ancient days of the savannah, finding a bush of berries that you hadn’t noticed before. It is about betting a large of money at the casino and hoping you will win an even larger one. It is the molecule that always wants more and drives us towards achieving this “more”, whatever it is.

In order for prediction errors to occur, we need to have a model of the world which allows us the predict things that could happen. You need to expect something in order to be surprised by the unexpected. I went into more depth into how modern cognitive science conceptualizes this as a working principle for the entire brain in my article on The Bayesian Brain Hypothesis, while in Transcendent Experience and the Bayesian Brain, I connected this to experiences of transcendent and religious nature.

Dopamine is intimately involved with our ability to build models and to change them. In this podcast episode, Andrew Huberman explains that in order for adults to be able to transform their visual field (e.g. when wearing glasses that invert their field of vision, making everything look like it’s in Australia, and their visual systems having to learn to flip it back), making them carry out a dopaminergic food foraging task is the only way to invoke enough plasticity in the adult brain for it to turn its model of the visual world on its head. And so in the adult brain, dopamine is strongly involved in forming and changing models of the world. With children, this still happens quite quickly and automatically, which makes sense as their models of the world are not yet as well-established.

In general, prediction errors describe a mismatch between prediction and sensory input. Music is a sensory experience, and in music, it is likewise crucial to have an internal model of music that builds expectations (I’ve gone into more depth on this in my article on A Physicist’s Perspective on Tonality). Music then provides a cohesive framework in which expectations are built and expectations are broken.

Good music dances along the edge of order and surprise. If no harmonic, melodic, or rhythmic expectations are built, music sounds chaotic, empty, unhinged (a critique often voiced towards atonal music), while if music fulfills all expectations, it becomes cliché (see the infamous four-chord songs).

Richard Wagner’s Tristan chord broke a central paradigm of harmony that had been the foundation of a long tradition of Western music: dissonances are formed and then resolved, but they usually don’t linger around for four hours.

The Tristan chord, upon first hearing, probably caused a large prediction error in the ears of his audience, especially so in his earliest listeners in 1865. The magnitude of this we, standing on the other side of 150 years of music history, can hardly evaluate.

It dissolved the boundaries of harmony, and its huge influence would transform the collective set of expectations with which we as future listeners would approach music.

“ I seek to this day for a work of an equally dangerous fascination, of an equally eerie and sweet eternity as the Tristan — in all the arts I seek in vain.
Friedrich Nietsche, Ecce Homo

But the Tristan chord wouldn’t be famous if it were just for featuring an unresolved, unexpected dissonance, but it is famous because this dissonance served a crucial purpose in the artistic whole of the opera — bringing us right back to the neurotransmitter of interest: dopamine. Because I believe the parallels to dopamine go further than just relating it to the role it plays in building models of the world and creating expectations: dopamine, as much as the unresolved Tristan chord, can create within us a profound sense of longing for resolution.

Even in Kyoto
Hearing the cuckoo’s cry
I long for Kyoto
- Basho Matsuo

Dopamine is the molecule of the future, driving us to achieve potential rewards. It looks out for more food, for more sex, for more security.

Dopamine is thus naturally related to obsessive yearning. It creates a physical craving for resolution, and, accordingly, is the main driver of addictive, impulsive behavior.

The early stages of falling in love tend to be defined by this sense of a rollercoaster ride of emotions, of the promise of unimaginable pleasures, overlapped with the anxiety of losing them. Appropriately, dopamine drives the initial stages of falling in love. It projects ourselves into a future that is made perfect by the object of our love. It helps us maximize rewards by creating a vision of this future and gives a profound motivation in trying to achieve it.

In the later stages of a relationship, much of this excitement dwindles away. There are not as many reward prediction errors associated with your partner anymore, and dopamine comes to rest. Knowing your partner inside out means most of the things he or she does can be anticipated. Luckily, in healthy relationships, other neurotransmitters, such as serotonin, oxytocin, and vasopressin take over, allowing us to enjoy the here and now of a meaningful and intimate bond.

But for dopamine, there is no finish line. For dopamine, there is only the race.

In the wafting universe of the world-breath
Drowning, sinking, unconscious, supreme delight!
- Isolde’s last words

At the end of Tristan and Isolde, Isolde dies the death of love (I can recommend this brilliant version by Jessye Norman). Tristan has been killed, and she is consumed by her yearning for a final unity with him.

Wagner, deeply inspired by reading Schopenhauer’s Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung, was perhaps the most philosophically inclined of the great composers. For him, as for many of the Romantics, music went beyond music, serving a larger, metaphysical purpose. He was close friends with Nietzsche (at least for a time), and Nietzsche dedicated his first book “Die Geburt der Tragödie aus dem Geiste der Musik”, in which he details how Wagner’s music was to reconnect art to the genius of the spirit of the Greek tragedy, to him.

In the last minutes of the four-hour marathon that is Tristan and Isolde, the music builds up in a slow, dense crescendo, ending in a final, ecstatic resolution of the Tristan chord. Isolde’s death is pure transcendence. The music accompanying her death is not tragic but offers a profound sense of peace, eternally reuniting the lovers, appeasing their longing. It is the end of all longing: it is Nirvana.

Everything is alien to me and I often gaze around, yearning for a glimpse of the land of Nirvāṇa. But Nirvāṇa quickly turns back into ‘Tristan’.
- Richard Wagner

Thus, this resolution is not only about romantic love but about the human condition itself. This relates to the parallels Wagner himself spanned between Tristan and Buddhist thought in the quote from the beginning. The teaching of the Buddha is centered on overcoming suffering, Dukkha, by overcoming craving. Craving and attachment to the future create suffering, and Nirvana is reached when the veil of appearances is pierced, and all attachments are put aside, realizing the inherent egolessness of reality, of Anatman.

Following this logic, we can perhaps think of Buddhism as the first anti-Dopamine religion. Dopamine makes us work for the future, but it robs us of peace in the present. It eternally keeps the wheel turning, never allowing us to come to rest. The insights of the Buddha aim to counter precisely that.

I think Wagner’s opera might be seen as a representation of this struggle. It is a struggle that is deeply human, intertwined with our innermost expectations and longings. I find it fascinating that neuroscience offers tools and perspectives that Richard Wagner (and the Buddha) could have surely known nothing about: how the Tristan chord breaks expectations, playing with errors that create an almost physical sense of longing in its listeners, invoking the dopaminergic mindset of yearning for resolution.

Some of these metaphors might be a little far-fetched, but I hope it’s all in good fun. I believe thinking across the boundaries of disciplines can enrich our perspective on why music and art can have the profound effect it has on us, showing us how our deepest emotions interplay with the chemicals that make up the material aspects of our existence.

I love new ideas. My science podcast: Connect via LinkedIn:

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