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Sound affects: Another look at ‘music addiction’

In a previous blog that I wrote seven years ago, I looked at the concept of ‘music addiction’. As Philip Dorrell pointed out in his 2005 book What is Music? Solving a Scientific Mystery, music (like drugs) acts on our emotions and feelings. Regular readers of my blog will know that I describe myself as a ‘music obsessive’ and have written many articles about my own passion for listening to and collecting music (a few examples here, here, and here). One of the proudest moments of my life was getting a populist article on ‘music addiction’ published in Record Collector, my favourite magazine (see screenshot below and ‘Further reading’ for the full reference).

A 2011 study published by Dr. Valorie Salimpoor and her colleagues in Nature Neuroscience reported that on a neurochemical level, the pleasurable experience of listening to music releases the neurotransmitter dopamine that is important for the pleasures associated with rewards such as food, psychoactive drugs and money. This led to many headlines in newspapers along the lines of ‘people who say that they are addicted to music are not lying’. The team also reported that just the anticipation of pleasurable music led to increased dopamine release. Therefore, this helps explain why individuals (like myself) continually repeat songs or albums all the time as we want to re-experience those sensations repeatedly.

My previous article examined the concept of ‘musomania’ (i.e., an obsession with music). I noted that there had been very little in the way of academic or clinical literature on the topic although since writing my original article I have come across a couple of more recently published studies looking at the concept (one which published shortly after my original blog on the topic).

Dr. Nicolas Schmuziger and his colleagues published a paper in a 2012 issue of Audiology Research entitled ‘Is there addiction to loud music? Findings in a group of non-professional pop/rock musicians’. They hypothesized that listening to loud music may be an addictive behavior and that it could result in hearing damage (which is one of the reasons they published their findings in an audiology journal – also, they probably would have found it harder to publish their study in an addiction journal). They hypothesized that individuals who were members of non-professional pop/rock bands who had regular exposure to loud music would be more likely to show an addictive-like behavior for loud music compared to individuals who were not.

In their study, the researchers recruited 50 non-professional musicians and matched them with 50 control participants. Both groups completed a questionnaire called the Northeastern Music Listening Survey (NEMLS) comprising two basic scales. The first scale was an adaptation of the Michigan Alcohol Screening Test (MAST) to study the addictive-like behavior towards loud music. The NEMLS was developed by Dr. Mary Florentine and her colleagues to assess Maladaptive Music Listening (MML). It is a 24 item scale that (in relation to listening to music) examining five distinct areas: “(i) recognition and admission of the problem by self and others; (ii) legal, work and social problems; (iii) seeking involvement with treatment programs; (iv) marital-family difficulties; and (v) medical pathology”. In addition to socio-demographic questions (on age, gender, and level of education), a second component of the NEMLS included “four items assessing three out of seven clinical diagnostic criteria for substance dependence as outlined by the 4th edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV) of the American Psychiatric Association…The other four criteria were already embedded within the MAST”.

Findings showed that nine (out of 50) met the DSM-IV criteria for ‘music dependence’ compared to just one individual in the control group. Seven of the nine musicians endorsing DSM criteria also had a positive score on the NEMLS. The researchers concluded that traits of addictive-like behavior to loud music were detected more often in members of nonprofessional pop/rock bands than in matched controls. The authors themselves pointed out that they did not explore the reasons why their participants “with repeated exposure to high-sound levels of electro-amplified music may be more likely to show traits of maladaptive behavior to loud music than the control subjects, and whether they develop such behavior before or after joining a pop/rock band”. They also concluded that only a few participants in their sample may have maladaptive music listening.

A more recent paper by Dr. Christine Ahrends entitled ‘Does excessive music practicing have addiction potential?’ was published in the journal Psychomusicology: Music, Mind, and Brain. She noted that:

“A theory that has previously been put forward but has not yet been empirically examined is the idea of “musical addictivity” (Panksepp, 1995)… Panksepp assumes an involvement of the opioid system for the emergence of “chills” when listening to music and concludes from there that listening to emotionally arousing music can be addictive through the release of opioids. On those grounds, Panksepp compares the phenomenon of music-induced chills (defining the main bodily response as a feeling of coldness) with that of drug addiction and its related withdrawal symptoms (like the so-called “cold turkey”). Although this comparison has major limitations, the general hypothesis might provide a new perspective on certain types of music-related behavior”.

Put simply, it has been argued that music has the capacity to activate the reward centres in the human brain and this can lead to behavioural addiction. Dr. Ahrends noted that recent studies supported the idea of addictive music consumption (citing the studies by Schmuziger and colleagues, and the study by Florentine and colleagues, both mentioned above) but not for music practicing. She wrote that:

“Anecdotal evidence has shown that some musicians either continue to practice through practice-induced pain or have psychosomatic disorders at deprivation, thus transforming a former goal-directed behavior into a maladaptive one”.

Based on the small empirical literature and anecdotal evidence, Dr. Ahrends hypothesized that music practice has the potential to be addictive and carried out an exploratory empirical study. To assess music practice addiction, she adapted the Exercise Dependence Scale Revised (EDS-R) (very similar to my own Exercise Addiction Inventory) and investigated the extent to whether musicians fulfilled the criteria to be classified as being “at risk for dependence” in relation to their music practice. A total of 25 musicians were recruited from German conservatories. Based on the scale scores three of the participants were classified as “at risk for dependence,” 20 of the participants were classified as “nondependent-symptomatic,” and two were classified as “nondependent-asymptomatic.” Based on these results, Dr. Ahrends claimed the findings provided tentative support for music practice addiction. She went on to argue that the concept of music practice addiction is a promising concept for further research and “may have implications for the understanding of mental health problems in musicians”.

In relation to this latter study, I would argue that this isn’t a case of ‘music practice addiction’ (if it exists at all) but if it exists, it is actually akin to ‘study addiction’ (a pre-cursor to ‘workaholism’) that I and my colleagues have published a number of papers on over the past few years (see ‘Further reading). The notion of ‘study addiction’ is highly controversial so it’s unsurprising that ‘music practice addiction’ would similarly be seen as controversial by most scholars working in the behavioural addiction field.

Dr Mark Griffiths, Distinguished Professor of Behavioural Addiction, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Ahrends, C. (2017). Does excessive music practicing have addiction potential? Psychomusicology: Music, Mind, and Brain, 27(3), 191-202.

Atroszko, P.A., Andreassen, C.S., Griffiths, M.D. & Pallesen, S. (2015). Study addiction – A new area of psychological study: Conceptualization, assessment, and preliminary empirical findings. Journal of Behavioral Addictions, 4, 75–84.

Atroszko, P.A., Andreassen, C.S., Griffiths, M.D. & Pallesen, S. (2016). Study addiction: A cross-cultural longitudinal study examining temporal stability and predictors of its changes. Journal of Behavioral Addictions, 5, 357–362.

Atroszko, P.A., Andreassen, C.S., Griffiths, M.D., Pallesen, S. (2016). The relationship between study addiction and work addiction: A cross-cultural longitudinal study. Journal of Behavioral Addiction, 5, 708–714.

Dorrell, P. (2005). Is music a drug? 1729.com, July 3. Located at: http://www.1729.com/blog/IsMusicADrug.html

Dorrell, P. (2005).What is Music? Solving a Scientific Mystery. Located at: http://whatismusic.info/.

Florentine, M., Hunter, W., Robinson, M., Ballou, M., & Buus, S. (1998). On the behavioral characteristics of loud-music listening. Ear and Hearing, 19(6), 420-428.

Griffiths, M.D. (2012). Music addiction. Record Collector, 406 (October), p.20.

The Local (2007). Man gets sick benefits for heavy metal addiction. June 19. Located at: http://www.thelocal.se/7650/20070619/

Morrison, E. (2011). Researchers show why music is so addictive. Medhill Reports, January 21. Located at: http://news.medill.northwestern.edu/chicago/news.aspx?id=176870

Panksepp, J. (1995). The emotional sources of “chills” induced by music. Music Perception, 13, 171–207.

Salimpoor, V.N., Benovoy, M., Larcher, K. Dagher, A. & Zatorre, R.J. (2011). Anatomically distinct dopamine release during anticipation and experience of peak emotion to music. Nature Neuroscience 14, 257–262.

Schmuziger, N., Patscheke, J., Stieglitz, R., & Probst, R. (2012). Is there addiction to loud music? Findings in a group of non-professional pop/rock musicians. Audiology Research, 2(e1), 57-63.

Smith, J. (1989). Senses and Sensibilities. New York: Wiley.