Why Is Music So Addictive?

Music has the power to uplift your mood due to its ability to trigger dopamine release in the brain.

Reading Time: 4 minutes

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By Jaden Bae

Tap tap tap. The urge to tap your feet to the rhythm while doing homework and listening to Spotify’s Today’s Top Hits is not going away. As Stuyvesant students who have so much on our plates, how and why do we make time for listening to music? It is not as simple as just enjoying your favorite tunes—rather, the reason involves the hormones in your brain.

Within our brains, thousands of neurotransmitters work together to carry chemical signals from one neuron to the next. One of these workers is dopamine, which controls the brain’s pleasure and reward center and helps us distinguish between what we find interesting or boring. When we really like something, it is because dopamine is being released, spreading along four dopaminergic pathways in the brain. The nervous system uses this hormone to send messages between nerve cells and the rest of the body, acting as a chemical messenger to indicate enjoyment.

In a study done at McGill University in 2011, dopamine levels increased when subjects anticipated certain parts of their favorite tunes. When listening to specific parts of the song, endogenous dopamine release in the striatum was at its apex, a sign of peak pleasure in the body. Nevertheless, some activities that stimulate dopamine releases can become addictive because the brain can become reliant on that dopamine surge; this occurs in cases of substance abuse. For example, when people consistently drink too much coffee, disrupting that routine leads to plummeting dopamine levels, bringing out negative emotions since the brain and body have grown to depend on caffeine and the reaction it evokes.

Another reason why we instinctively open our music apps is because music affects our mood. Listening to music is a common coping mechanism when stress overwhelms the body. Playing your favorite song can feel like an escape from reality, as it can either change or escalate your mood by triggering biochemical stress reducers in your brain. Songs with tempos and dynamics that match your feelings can be extremely validating, whether you listen to energizing music to boost your mood or sad music that resonates with you. In trying times, another hormone in the brain known as prolactin plays a role in why people turn to music for comfort. In response to tears and negative emotions including grief and depression, prolactin is released by the endocrine neurons in the brain. According to David Huron, a professor at the Ohio State University who specializes in the psychology of music and music cognition, the release of prolactin as a result of listening to sad music serves to provide comfort to combat the mental pain one may be experiencing. This explains why listening to break-up songs after experiencing something similar can make people feel more at ease and less alone.

The infinite amount of musical styles makes it possible for anyone to find at least one song or artist that they enjoy listening to. For those who listen to a variety of genres, it never gets boring since there are so many different options to explore. Kelly Jakubowski, a music psychologist at Durham University in England, conducted a study in 2017 proving that 90 percent of people experience involuntary musical imagery (INMI) at least once a week. INMI is often referred to as an “earworm,” or a song that gets stuck in one’s head involuntarily. Because of the countless genre-spanning songs being released every week, there is always something new to listen to. Often, many of these songs share common characteristics in pitch patterns and upbeat tempos. Jakubowski mentions how many artists use this data to predict which songs will gain popularity and try to produce songs that align with those qualities.

Similar to social media, music is all around us. Platforms such as TikTok are famous for their viral and catchy songs, with approximately 430 songs surpassing one billion video views in 2021. Constant exposure to these trends hooks us in, especially because they are shown to viewers in appealing ways, like association with dances. It makes it easy to get distracted, taking people away from the work at hand. Especially with demanding tasks that require more brainpower, having music of any kind contributes to overstimulating mental resources and overwhelming the mind. This same disconnect is experienced by teenagers today, as many are attached to their devices and have their headphones in, discouraging further social interaction. Many experts link data that shows that one in five teenagers today experience some form of hearing loss due to a surge in the use of headphones within this age group. This rate is approximately 30 percent higher than it was twenty years ago because of the increased social media use that naturally comes with music.

It has been made so easy for us to listen to music almost everywhere we go, and it is impossible to imagine contemporary society without this everyday convenience. Music is everywhere, so how can we even cut back on how much we listen? One can start by identifying the parts of their daily routine where they do not need music, such as during class lectures or family dinners. Though music has been proven to have numerous positive long-term effects on emotional and mental health, seeking a balance between listening to music and daily life is best for overall health.