You know the feeling: The opening chords of one of your favorite songs begins to play and it’s like your entire body is flooded with …. something. I’m here to tell you that something is dopamine.
What is dopamine? In short, it’s a “feel good” neurochemical that is released when we experience pleasure and reward. Dopamine also has a number of important functions for the body, including reducing insulin production in the pancreas and increasing sodium excretion in the kidneys. But for the purpose of this blog, we don’t care about that. We care about how it makes us feel, baby! And it makes us feel good.
Traditionally scientists focused their studies on how dopamine is released in relation to things that are necessary for our survival as a species: sex, sleep, and food.
But recent studies have shown that this chemical is also released when we listen to music. But why? Music isn’t necessary for our survival, is it?
Well, I’d argue that some days music is necessary for my survival. I’m not sure I could not get through a sink of dirty dishes or a tedious day of bookkeeping if I weren’t listening to music while performing those tasks. Plus, in times of our greatest happiness and our deepest sadness, we turn to music for celebration, comfort, and I’d argue survival.
A 2011 Psychology Today article stated that “music is a core function in our brain. Our brains are wired from the beginning to process and understand music.” That makes perfect sense. Take a look at all those toddlers who are dancing and singing before they can even speak. Or think about how you might not be able to hold a verbal conversation with someone who speaks a different language than you do, but you could easily dance with them, because we all feel music much in the say way.
So, yes, it’s confirmed. We release dopamine when we listen to music. And since dopamine is basically addictive (cocaine, ecstasy, meth, and other psychostimulants increase dopamine levels), I’d argue that we get addicted to our favorite songs.
In fact, I think we fall in love with music much the same way that we fall in love with people. Consider the following…
New romantic relationships that advance beyond the initial attraction phase and move into the full-on infatuation phase are initially held together by high levels of dopamine. The infatuation phase of the relationship, which usually lasts as long as 6 months to two years, is the part where you are basically crazy, because – yep, you guessed it – you are releasing dopamine. During the infatuation phase, you idealize your partner and find everything about them so amazing, thanks in large part to the dopamine that is released when you are around them. Mother Nature is chanting “procreate, procreate, procreate!” (So go ahead and forgive that lovestruck friend of yours who overshares too many private, gooey photos with the giddy captions on social media. They are literally on drugs).
New relationships are naturally an exciting time, but eventually the dopamine surges become fewer and the chemical intensity becomes less as the newness of the romance wears off. This is why a lot of couples break up around the one or two year mark. Because that’s when they stop seeing rainbows and unicorns in each other’s eyes and start seeing whether or not they are truly compatible with their partner. This is when they find out if they like and love each other for real.
Now before you despair over the disappearance of dopamine, bear in mind that other feel-good neurochemicals such as oxytocin (responsible for deeper bonding) are released throughout long-term relationships. Thirty years into your marriage, you might not get intense dopamine hits but if you and your partner love each other, you will feel high levels of oxytocin, an extremely lovely neurochemical in its own right. Dopamine is not the end-all be-all by any means. There is something wonderful about moving out of the infatuation phase and discovering that you still think your partner is amazing, and you only get to fully discover that after the dopamine hits abate.
So now let’s look at our love affairs with music. Some songs, we form a lifelong bond with. Decades can pass, and we still love them. What does this sound like? Our spouse or life partner! The big difference is that with music, you can easily and happily be polygamous. You can love many songs your entire life and none of the other songs will ever get hurt or feel jealous about it. Queen’s “Under Pressure” (Live at Wembley version) and Melissa Etheridge’s “Come to My Window” have no beef with each other in my life. And I can guarantee that twenty years from now, I will still love James Bay’s “Hold Back the River.” When we bond with a song enough to love it through the years, I wonder if we are actually releasing oxytocin more so than dopamine.
Other songs, we have short-lived passionate affairs with and then the attraction burns out. You turn on the song again only to discover that the spark is no longer there. As I already explained, this often happens after the infatuation phase has passed in romantic relationships. My theory is that the infatuation phase with music is much shorter. A few weeks to a few months if you listen to the song a lot. I feel like a lot of Top 40 pop songs fall into this category for me. They are catchy as hell, but do they have staying power? Often times, they don’t.
And then there are those songs that you initially like that grow to irritate you. You wonder, Why did I ever like this dumb song in the first place? It’s kind of like that one guy/gal from that one time who now makes you think: Oh, ick.
And finally, there are the songs where you no longer crave the melody or the lyrics, but the song itself still brings you a sweet wave of nostalgia. Many of us feel this way about our high school sweetheart. We don’t want to hang out with them anymore but the memories are still nice to have. This is how I feel when I listen to Blackstreet’s “No Diggity.” It’s a groovy little song, but I’m not so sure I’d love it as much as I did back in the day if I were to hear it for the first time today. Yet I still like listening to it today because it takes me back to memories of my hometown girls.
See, we totally have romances with songs. There’s a scientific explanation for why you can’t stop playing that song. It’s because we, humans, totally love dopamine.
So the next time you want some feel-good chemicals coursing through your body, turn on your new favorite song and get high from it.
Hallie Shepherd is a writer, actress, and film producer. Follow her on Instagram where she celebrates the stories we tell.