The Science Behind Why You Keep Smashing Replay on That One Song

I have a legitimate problem with repeat listens, so I called a music professor and brain scientist for answers.

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Nov 7 2017, 4:14pm

Graphic work by George Smart

This article originally appeared on Noisey Denmark

I have a problem. I absolutely rinse songs that I like. In my defense, you most likely do it too. You'll know what it's like if so: you start off not even realising how many times you've hit replay; you'll get the song stuck in your head, and decide that the only way to make it stop replaying in your mind is to repeatedly blast it out of speakers or headphones until you're completely sick of it. I tend to get a song stuck in my head, mentally play around with its different parts and then feel an irresistible urge to pick those layers apart again and again. And again.

Concerned and, at times, visibly frustrated friends and colleagues have made me aware of the fact that I have a problem. They claim that I'm "ruining" songs for them, and myself, by listening to them this much. And it's true—to qualify for my personal A-rotation playlist, I typically put a song through an intense trial period of at least five to ten consecutive plays. But since my friends and colleagues have absolutely no basis for knowing what they're talking about, and I philosophically recognize that I myself only know that I know nothing, I decided to find out if my music spamming is outright unhealthy. And to do that, I asked someone who holds expert knowledge in the field. Who better than Peter Vuust, both a professor at The Royal Academy of Music in Aarhus, Denmark, and the leader of what's known as the Center for Music in the Brain?

Peter is objectively a smart person. Especially when it comes to music and/or brains. Oh, and also, he's a jazz musician.

Photo by Mads Bjørn Christiansen

Noisey: Hey Peter. I've been told I play songs to death, which has become a source of great distress for people around me (namely my colleagues, who I sit next to every day). What happens inside my brain, when I listen to a song?
Peter Vuust: The reason we like listening to music and feel the desire to have it repeated is likely that it affects the reward center of our brains. This is the biological system that rewards us for doing things that are vital to our survival. It's the reason we get a little high from eating food, and a little higher from having sex and so on. It's nature and biology's way of making sure we repeat the things necessary for our survival.

Because of the reward system, music is probably the artistic product we reuse the most. After all, we rarely watch a movie or read a book much more than two or three times. But we listen to music again and again. Music is also the art form with the most repetitions.

So what's going on with my biology that has made my brain think I need to listen to Post Malone's "Rockstar" four to six times a day to survive?
It's hard to explain, but we know music affects our reward system. How it does so varies from individual to individual—music gets some people way "higher" than others. There are a few people that get absolutely nothing out of music. It is documentable that listening to it generates no activity in their pleasure centers whatsoever. There's no music that appeals to them, and they can't understand why other people spend time on it. But then there are people whose arm hairs stand up, when they listen to music they like. We know that this is regulated by dopamine—the brain's natural dope. There are also drugs that work by releasing more dopamine into our brains.

What type of narcotics are most similar to listening to music, dopamine-wise?
Music has an amazing ability to work its way into our survival mechanisms. Kind of like cocaine. But narcotics affect the brain in different ways. They all affect the dopamine system in some way. We know that there is a lot of it coursing around in your brain when you do cocaine, amphetamine and those kinds of drugs. But they have wildly different effects—or so I've heard from people that do them. And read. It's not something I have first-hand experience with. So it's hard to specifically compare it to music.

What makes me want to listen to the same tracks repeatedly?
You're a bit special in that regard. You could say that you have a bit of an addiction, just like we all have with food. Food "addiction" can become unhealthy, though.

Like if you're chronically jonesing for McDonald's?
Yes precisely, or if you're sat with a bowl of candy in front of you, and just can't stop stuffing your face even though you're full. It's the same thing that happens with music or drugs. You don't need it to survive, but it's able to worm its way into our survival systems. The positive thing about music is that it is in no way harmful to people's survival.

What happens when I inevitably get sick of a song?
If you listen to something a bunch of times, it makes its way to the other end of the spectrum, and we stop learning anything new when we listen to it, which our biological systems are hypersensitive towards. And maybe that spectrum is a bit wider for you than it is for your friends and colleagues. Meaning it takes longer for you before your brain realises that you aren't actually learning anything new.

Hmm. Could it be that I'm just learning more stuff than they are?
Musicians are far more sensitive to minute changes in sound than non-musicians. So it could also be that you're just really good at getting a lot of information out of the music.

"Music has an amazing ability to work its way into our survival mechanisms. Kind of like cocaine."

Yes, I like that better, great. But what if you really don't like Nickelback, but force yourself to listen to "How You Remind Me" 100 times? Will that make you like it more?
What we like also depends a lot on who we are. Take me for example, an academic. I'm also a professional musician and a music professor, so it's better for me to say that I like classical music instead of the Beatles, than it is for my friends. We have a deep-seeded need to identify with a certain group. And music is a very important tool in that. When we're young, we go to festivals. In that arena, music is a way of showing the world that we're young, free, and ready to party. It's often not even something we're aware of. Meaning you could play that Nicko—what did you call it?

Nickelback.
When there's a band that's already widely hated, it also becomes about what social constellations, we belong to. It's a biological thing, but also a sociological thing and a psychological thing.

Why do different people have different listening habits?
We all use music in wildly different ways. Some people are part of opera clubs and go to the opera together; other people go to football games and chant songs together at the stadium. Our brains are different. We're just as different on the inside as we are on the outside.

Um, OK. What do you listen to, personally?
I listen to jazz and rhythmical music. Right now I'm listening to the album Hand Jive by the guitarist John Scofield. I heard it a bit in the 90s when it came out, but not too much.

Is there such a thing as an unhealthy listening habit?
Music has been used for torture. In Guantanamo for example, they played a loop of some heavy metal for the prisoners, which was really uncomfortable both culturally and biologically. Personally, I don't believe there is such a thing as good or bad music.

Hmm, OK. Thanks for clearing that up for us, Peter.