Whether it’s providing the soundtrack to your bus journey, background noise while getting work done in the library, or chilling with friends at home, listening to music has become something so natural that it’s rare that we sit in silence. But when do we cross the line into listening to too much music? Can this ever be a bad thing? And is there such a thing as being addicted to music?
Scientifically speaking, there is debate over whether listening to music in itself can become an ‘addiction’. Whilst other addictions have clear harmful effects and are medically recognised, music addiction does not have the same status.
However, one area in which the effects of listening to music are similar to the use of other substances is in its ability to produce dopamine. Similar to adrenaline, this release has the power to alter our mood and even create a ‘music high’. Multiple studies have proven that music can cause the release of dopamine, including one at McGill University in Canada where researchers recorded increased dopamine levels when subjects were anticipating certain parts of their favourite music.
It’s not just with live music that we get this feeling of music addiction
For gig lovers, this is particularly evident when listening to live music as we get a thrill from seeing our favourite artists in the flesh and hearing their recognisable songs come to life in front of us. The addictive aspect then comes in with the desire to chase that feeling and book more concerts. This phenomenon saw an extreme case in the 70s, 80s and 90s with “Deadheads”, or fans of the American rock band the Grateful Dead, who travelled around North America because seeing the band perform live became spiritual, and “got people high whether those people were on drugs or not”.
But it’s not just with live music that we get this feeling of music addiction. We’ve all experienced the feeling of listening to a song or album on a loop because it just seems to scratch a part of your brain. Especially with platforms like TikTok and short, catchy sounds going viral, we’re constantly exposed to certain songs, which can lead to a sort of addictive relationship with them. You may have even experienced a withdrawal-like feeling from not listening to a song that’s just come out that you’ve had on a loop, or that’s playing in your head and you need to hear aloud. This is not to diminish other serious addictions, but we can say that at least our compulsion to listen to music at times may make us feel that we are addicted to it.
One can become dependent on favourite comfort songs in times of distress and anxiety
In the same way that the body builds up a tolerance to repeated behavioural practices if they make us feel good, with music too the more it plays a part in your daily life the more you will want to listen. Arguably consuming music borders on the addictive when we feel we cannot be in silence, and have the need for some background noise at all times. It could be whilst cleaning the house, or wandering to the shops, that you feel that to not listening to music would simply leave a slight emptiness, or a missed opportunity to indulge in some instrumentation or even discover a new artist. This is of course all subjective – some people enjoy music but don’t need to listen to it all the time.
In any case, unlike other addictive behaviours, the action of listening to music has so many positive effects, that it should be considered above all an enriching habit, rather than a damaging one. Yes, one can become dependent on favourite comfort songs in times of distress and anxiety, but equally, music provides a vital sanctuary for mood regulation and can even help with stress and ease insomnia. For the moment it seems if music addiction is possible, it is not likely to harm us more than it is to help us.