Is music a drug?

26 June 2024 |

Music connects us, moves us and, as recent research suggests, it can affect our brains in ways similar to psychoactive drugs. But how exactly does that work? And can music really be seen as a drug? Musicologist Edith Van Dyck investigated.

What happens in our brains when we listen to music?

Edith Van Dyck: ‘As with drug use, music can stimulate the release of (among other things) dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with pleasure and reward. This happens in the nucleus accumbens, an area of the brain crucial to the reward system. As a result, music can evoke feelings of euphoria and pleasure, similar to the effects of certain drugs."

But music is not addictive, is it?

"It is virtually impossible to become clinically addicted to music. However, music can evoke addictive behaviour. Some people want to listen to music constantly and may also use it as a way to escape reality. The big difference with drugs is that music has no harmful effects. You can suffer hearing damage, but that is due to the volume of the sound or the air pressure, not the music itself."

So why do we think music is so great?

"Music acts as social glue. Studies show that when you listen to music, you feel less lonely. Even sad music can make you happy, because the realisation that others are hearing the same music or that the emotions resonate with your feelings can create a sense of belonging. This is evident at festivals, where people not only listen to music together, but also dance together. That helps them relax, release emotions and experience a sense of unity."

"Music is extremely personal. What you like to hear may be considered terrible by someone else. Yet you can't actually do much wrong with music. It even has the ability to increase understanding for others. Because music transcends language: it is a form of communication without words. Yes, of course there’s lyrics, but music itself connects people because you don't need linguistics. It speaks much more directly."

So music is not addictive, but we can't live without it either?

"Throughout history, there have been many places and moments where music has been restricted. Just think of Iran, Nazi Germany or recently the new law in Chechnya stipulating that music cannot be too fast or too slow. That kind of restriction directly and/or indirectly makes people unhappier. We suspect that music is an evolutionary adaptation, which played an important role in social and sexual selection and as a means of communication. Doing away with music would not be a good thing for humanity."

"Music is essentially sound, and sound is an expression of life. Music helps bring communities together, especially during periods of great uncertainty, mourning or during celebrations. It provides support and makes difficult times more bearable. Music connects and that’s also how we use it: to feel connected."

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Edith Van Dyck

Edith Van Dyck is a postdoctoral researcher in musicology and a bachelor student in philosophy at the faculty of Arts and Philosophy. She also teaches music history at the RITCS in Brussels. She prefers to experience music live and in a wide range of musical genres, with a strong preference for eclectic styles. Or while dancing in her living room, with or without her children.


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