We Are All Addicted to Music
By Kyle McCarthy from SLN More Blogs by This AuthorFrom the Chord Progression Blog Series
Everyone's Got Their Favorites
Last week I was talking music with my friend, Andy, who is a metal fan. By metal fan, I don’t simply mean that he enjoys listening to heavy metal. I mean that he lives to thrash. His ’96 Civic is littered with bumper stickers of band names that frighten your grandmother. The time it takes him to remove his piercings holds up the security line at airports for hours on end. The man owns an ACOUSTIC Flying-V guitar. I cannot stress the absurdity of that last fact enough… an acoustic Flying-V.
Now that you have a proper image of Andy’s metalness implanted in your mind, I’ll tell you what he told me about his passion for metal. "There’s nothing quite like it, Kyle. Most people can’t understand this, but metal fans are some of the happiest people you’ll ever meet. This music gives us an amazing outlet that most people just don’t have. Mosh pits aren’t destructive, they’re cathartic! I’m a happier person because of the music that I listen to.” Andy’s sentiments got me thinking about why music means so much to so many.
You don’t encounter people who have merely a passing interest in music. Seemingly everyone has a favorite band, radio station, or genre with which they identify. I once met an individual who had attended over 200 Jimmy Buffet concerts. A self-described “Parrot Head” (the moniker of Jimmy Buffet fans), this guy told me that Jimmy Buffet was the most influential artist of the 20th century. Apparently people don’t like Jimmy Buffet, people LOVE Jimmy Buffet! New research suggests that there is an ingredient to music that can create a change in our mood, which would explain this gentleman’s affinity for Mr. Buffet’s catalogue.
Music and Our Emotions
In late 2010, a study was conducted that investigated the link between music and our emotions. Researchers at McGill University in Montreal gathered eight individuals to their lab. These test subjects were told to bring along some music that they felt increased their overall sense of pleasure. The samples of music varied widely, from classical to Zeppelin. Each person listened to their music independently for about 15 minutes. They were then injected with a radioactive dye that binds with dopamine receptors. Dopamine is a chemical that heavily influences dozens of human behaviors such as motivation, mood, and punishment and reward.
The results point toward some of the most concrete evidence that music affects behavior in human beings. Using a PET scanner, the researchers were able to observe the dye circulating freely through the listeners’ blood. This meant that the dopamine receptors were busy tending to the sweet melodies that the listeners were supplying them. If the dye would have attached to the receptors, that would have implied that music was having no real effect on the listeners’ cognition.
In a follow-up test conducted the next day, the same listeners were subjected to music that they found less stimulating. This time, the dopamine receptors remained unoccupied, allowing the radioactive dye to attach to them. This seems to suggest that music might be an addictive force like eating or having sex. This is fascinating because, unlike eating or having sex, listening to music is an abstract experience, divorced from all forms of tangibility.
Anticipating the Groove
Valarie Salimpoor, a neuroscientist at McGill, was interested in the intangible quality of this stimulus response. Speaking of the experiment, she said, "It is amazing that we can release dopamine in anticipation of something abstract, complex and not concrete. This is the first study to show that dopamine can be released in response to an aesthetic stimulus."
Further, the research volunteers actually began pumping out dopamine before any music was actually played. This suggests that a large part of the enjoyment that people get from listening to music is anticipatory. We get excited for the notes and percussion that await us in our favorite portions of our favorite songs because of the reward-inducing function of dopamine.
This study serves to validate the thousands of professionals working to ease stress, mood swings, and depression through music therapy. David Huron, a music cognition researcher at Ohio State University, said, "Music is going to be a useful tool in trying to explain all sorts of aspects of pleasure, addiction and maladaptive behaviors."
Keep on Rockin' in the Free World
The results from this experiment reinforce Andy’s contention that music has made him a happier person. It also seems to explain the ubiquitous prevalence of Jimmy Buffet fans. Some people can’t get enough Cannibal Corpse, others prefer “Cheeseburger in Paradise" on repeat. The important thing is that whatever music we listen to puts us in touch with our emotions and serves as a creative outlet.
Sohn, Emily. "Why Music Makes You Happy." Human News. Discovery News. Web. 23 May 2012.