If you love music, you’re not alone. People throughout the world appreciate and use music every day, whether it’s to advertise, remember facts, exercise, or drift off to sleep. For many, music also plays a huge role in culture and identity.
Plus, music may also:
While there’s little fault to find with those effects, some question whether people can enjoy music a bit too much.
The short answer to this is no: Experts don’t formally recognize music addiction as a mental health diagnosis. Still, that doesn’t mean music habits can still sometimes become problematic.
In short, not really.
Experts don’t formally recognize music addiction as a mental health diagnosis. Still, that doesn’t mean music habits can still sometimes become problematic.
If you have any familiarity with how addiction develops, you might know a little about the role dopamine plays.
Here’s the short version:
Substance use or certain behaviors trigger the release of dopamine in the brain’s reward system. Over time, the brain begins to rely on these substances or behaviors and naturally releases less dopamine. So, your brain becomes dependent on those dopamine triggers.
A 2011 study involving 10 people who experience chills when listening to music suggests that music can trigger a dopamine release when it produces an intensely positive emotional response — aka the chills.
In theory, the brain could potentially come to rely on music-triggered dopamine production, but there’s not much evidence to suggest this actually happens.
There’s no straight answer here, but we can look to things that health professionals generally check for when evaluating someone for a potential addiction:
- Can you control the behavior pattern?
- Does it cause problems in your daily life?
- Do you continue the behavior despite any negative consequences, because you feel unable to stop?
- Do you need the behavior more over time and experience withdrawal when you don’t engage in it?
It really comes down to this: Does listening to music affect you negatively?
Here are some more specific signs that you may want to take a closer look at your music habits.
You rely on music to manage your emotions
Music is often deeply emotional. It can convey an almost endless range of feeling.
It’s often used as a coping strategy for anxiety or stress. Many people report improvements in mood and motivation after listening to energizing music. It may even help you express emotions and find deeper insight.
Still, it won’t get to the heart of what’s causing your distress.
Keep in mind that listening to music that matches your mood can also intensify that mood — for better or worse. Sometimes this can help.
Sad breakup songs, for example, might help you work through your feelings after romantic disappointment. On the other hand, they might also have the opposite effect and prolong your feelings of sadness and grief.
You can’t function without music
Music can help make challenging or unpleasant tasks more tolerable. You might turn up the radio in bad traffic, jam out to high-energy songs while housecleaning, or listen to soothing music when you feel stressed.
Music isn’t appropriate in all situations, though.
For example, secretly listening to music during school lectures, meetings at work, or while someone’s trying to have a serious conversation with you isn’t a great idea.
If you feel distressed or find it difficult to function without music, it may be worth exploring why.
Music distracts you from important tasks
Getting lost in a song (or two) is pretty normal. Regularly losing track of time when listening to music could create challenges, however, especially when it keeps you from carrying out your responsibilities.
Maybe you wait for that 6-minute guitar solo to wrap up before you head out to pick your partner up from work. Or you get so in the zone that you’re suddenly way behind on making that dinner you promised you would.
Music plays a part in substance use
Substance use enhances the experience of listening to music for some people. Maybe a couple drinks helps you loosen up and dance at a live show. Or ecstasy makes you feel like you’re mentally synced up with the DJ.
Occasionally using substances while enjoying a deeper connection to music isn’t necessarily a problem, but it’s something to be mindful of.
Again, this doesn’t necessarily mean music is bad. In fact, most study participants also said music played an important part in their recovery.
But these findings do suggest music could potentially play a part in problematic substance use.
If you find yourself drawn to a specific type of music that also triggers a desire to use substances, consider taking a closer look at this connection.
Unless listening to music is having a negative impact on your life, there’s no reason to cut back.
If you’re looking to make some changes, though, consider these strategies.
Identify areas where you can go without music
Even if you want to listen to less music, you don’t have to go without it entirely. Instead, try choosing specific times of day or activities when avoiding music might be wise.
If you’ve identified specific areas of problem listening (during class lectures or at work when you’re supposed to focus on customers, for example), start cutting back there.
If you have the ability to listen to music nearly all day, every day, set aside some time when you could go without.
Sure, you can hang on to your workout tunes, but try giving your listening device a break when you go for a walk. Keep your ears open for the sounds of nature instead.
Break up your listening with other activities
If you listen to music pretty much nonstop, you may spend less time taking in other forms of media or interacting with others. Music has plenty of benefits, it’s true. But other media can offer benefits too.
Some things to try:
- Call a friend or loved one.
- Watch a favorite movie.
- Study a new language (free apps like Duolingo or audio CDs from your local library work great for this).
Listen to other things
Music is convenient because you can listen while doing other things. Background noise can keep you company at home or work if you don’t enjoy silence.
Music isn’t your only option, though.
Consider giving these different types of audio a try:
- National Public Radio (NPR). Google NPR followed by your city’s name for your local channel.
- Audiobooks. Many local libraries offer fiction and nonfiction options for checkout or streaming.
- Podcasts. No matter what you’re interested in, there’s probably a podcast about it.
Change how you listen to music
If your music listening is less of a problem than how you listen to music, making a few changes in your listening style could help:
- When you feel down and music makes it easier to wallow in gloom, try journaling, talking to a friend, or going for a walk.
- If loud music distracts you from work or studying, consider switching to music without lyrics when you need to focus.
- Consider lowering the volume or removing your headphones in situations when you need increased awareness, like at work or on the road.
By this point, you may have realized you don’t have a problem with your music listening habits. Even so, keeping these tips in mind can help you get the most enjoyment and benefit from music — and protect your hearing at the same time.
Turn down the volume
The one major downside to listening to music? It can lead to hearing loss over time if it’s too loud.
You might not even realize just how high the volume is. People tend to play the music they love most at higher volumes, perhaps because they believe it’s not as loud as music they enjoy less — even when the volume is exactly the same.
So, if you really want to blast that one song, go for it, but then lower the volume. Your ears (and probably your neighbors) will thank you.
If you use headphones, remember the 60-60 rule: Only listen to up to 60 percent of maximum volume for 60 minutes a day.
Switch to over-ear headphones
If you’re concerned about hearing loss, experts recommend headphones that cover your ear as a safer option. Earbuds and wireless headphones may be fantastically convenient, but they can increase your chances of hearing loss.
Noise-canceling headphones can also block out background noise, making it easier to lower the volume without the unwanted consequence of external sound creeping in and disrupting your chill.
Match your music to the situation
You probably know what types of music energize you, but certain types of music can offer benefits in specific situations:
If you feel like you need to rework some of your habits around music but are having a hard time doing so, working with a therapist can be a big help.
A therapist can help you better understand what drives your behaviors around music and come up with healthier ways to address them.
Say you use music to relieve persistent anxiety, but your reliance on music is causing problems in your relationship. A therapist can help you address the causes of your anxiety and find other ways to cope with symptoms in the moment.
Feel like you can’t live without music? It’s a pretty common feeling. For most people, music mostly has a positive impact, so listen away. Still, it never hurts to keep an eye (or ear) open for signs that music is causing problems in your life.
Crystal Raypole has previously worked as a writer and editor for GoodTherapy. Her fields of interest include Asian languages and literature, Japanese translation, cooking, natural sciences, sex positivity, and mental health. In particular, she’s committed to helping decrease stigma around mental health issues.