Is Music a Drug?

3 July, 2005
Music acts on our emotions and feelings. Drugs act on our emotions and feelings. We generally recognise that the feelings created by drugs are not "real". Does the same apply to music? Is music a drug?

Is Music a Drug?

If we knew what music was and we knew what a drug was, then this question would be easy to answer. But actually we don't know what music is (at least not with any certainty).

So I will approach this question by starting with the definition of "drug", and then I will see if music has some or all of the same properties that define what a drug is.

What is a Drug?

For the purposes of this discussion, I define a drug to be:

A substance, which when consumed by a person, alters the state of mind of that person, as a result of direct action of the substance on the brain or nervous system.

(This is the notion of "mind-altering drug", distinct from the notion of "pharmaceutical" or "medical" drug, although some substances do fall into both categories.)

The final qualification of this definition is important, because in general any substance may alter a person's state of mind when consumed. For example, if I feel thirsty, and I drink water, then I will feel less thirsty. But we recognise this as part of the brain's normal operation, which has the purpose of determining if the body is short of water and therefore needs to consume more water.

In constrast, if you consume alcohol, you might feel "better", but this is not because there is a biological need for alcohol, but rather because the alcohol directly acts on those parts of your brain that attempt to compute what is "better" and what is "worse". Another way to say this is that the feelings generated by alcohol are false feelings, and that although drinking alcohol can make you feel better, you are not really better off, from a biological point of view (which ultimately translates into: does this help long-term reproductive success?). Whereas, if consumption of water makes you feel better, it is because you are better off drinking it, because your body needs water to survive, and depending on circumstances, sometimes it needs more water and sometimes it doesn't need so much water.

Now music isn't a substance, so according to the strict definition of a drug, it isn't a drug. But we can accept a certain amount of poetic license, and consider the question "Is music a drug?" to be a question about the reality or falsity of the feelings that music generates.

Music as Super-Stimulus

According to my super-stimulus theory of music, music consists of contrived "speech" which is a super-stimulus for the perception of musicality, where musicality is a particular perceived property of speech which provides information about the internal mental state of the speaker, which consequently influences the listener's emotional response to the speech of the speaker.

The nature of the contrivance is such that, if this theory is correct, we must judge the feelings created by music to indeed be false. For example, a musical instrument does not have any mental state at all, so any emotional reaction to a perception of that instrument's mental state must be entirely spurious. Even if a musical performer is singing, so that the music is closer to normal speech, the musicality of the singing reflects the abilities of the performer and the song-writer in contriving the musicality, and does not necessarily reflect the true inner mental state of the performer.

Music as Illusion?

If we want to be pedantic, we might say that music is more of an illusion than a drug, in that it acts on perceptual modules in the brain whose purpose is to perform genuine perception, but it provides data belonging to a subset of possible data which the relevant modules are not able to process correctly.

That said, music is the only significant illusion that is generated and consumed for pleasure in a major way. We could interpret entertainment such as motion pictures (i.e. film and television) as a similar form of illusory contrivance, however, in this case the contrivance is one that produces perceptual input that it is almost identical to what the real input would be if the fiction being portrayed was indeed factual. Whereas if we regard music as a type of speech, it is not a realistic imitation of any normal type of speech.

How Strong a Drug?

So if music is a drug, how strong is it? Is it dangerous? Should it be classified on some narcotics schedule as class A, B, C or D?

Speaking entirely from personal experience, I would say that the effect of the strongest music is somewhat greater than that of caffeine, but less than that of alcohol.

Comparison of music with any particular drug is complicated by the fact that the specific effects of music are not identical to that of any drug, and the specific effects of different drugs are also different from each other. (My experiences with mind-altering drugs are somewhat limited, and some readers might know of other drugs that produce effects closer to the actual effects of music – but please don't tell me about it if the relevant drug is illegal.)

For most chemical drugs the effects are proportional to the amount taken, so we could try to more precisely relate the effect of our favourite music with that of a particular amount of (for instance) alcohol taken. The standard way of measuring the amount of alcohol in a person is milligrams per milliliter of blood. Of course most people have not actually had their blood alcohol measured in this way, but it can be estimated as a function of number of standard "drinks" consumed by a person in proportion to their size and body weight. Thus a simple characterisation might be the equivalent of N drinks consumed by a person of normal size and weight.

Even here there are complications relating to tolerance (in the case of alcohol) and boredom (in the case of music). The effects of alcohol are greater if you have not been drinking regularly for weeks or months. The effects of your favourite music may be much greater the first few times you hear it; after that you become somewhat bored by it (especially if you only ever hear it as one particular recording).

So, allowing for all these difficulties, I will make a very rough estimate, and say that the effect of the strongest music might be equivalent to about 1 or 2 standard drinks.

Does Music Ruin Your Liver?

Most drugs have some detrimental effect on the body if taken to excess, and it is a consequence of the false feelings created by drugs that they often are taken to excess. Music is not a substance, so it isn't going to cause the type of damage that drugs cause. But the excessive consumption of music can cause ill-health. The most common example is when too much exposure to overly loud music damages receptor hair cells in the ear, which causes deafness, particularly in those frequencies that occur strongly in the music.

Is Music Addictive?

The precise definition of "addiction" is somewhat problematic, even when applied to drugs. A useful definition is:

A user is addicted to a drug if they have a compulsive need to continue taking it, regardless of the negative consequences of doing so.

For drugs like heroin, the notion of addiction is relatively uncontroversial, although even with heroin there is confusion between the effects of withdrawal symptoms, which drive consumption in the short-term, and the anticipation of the effects of use, which can motivate consumption even in an addict who has gone through detoxification. For a not-quite-so-strong drug like cocaine, it becomes less clear as to where the boundary between regular use and addiction lies. Looking at the more popular alcohol, some people get addicted to it, and some don't. Some types of drug are relatively non-addictive, and some hallucinatory drugs such as LSD aren't really addictive at all.

There is the weaker notion of "psychological dependence", which implies that you will miss not having something, but not to the extent that you would deem yourself to be suffering. I think that might be a fair description of many people's relationship with music.

Can Music cause Delusions?

There is a fuzzy line between illusion and delusion, where the difference lies mainly in whether the subject of the relevant deception realises that they are being deceived. Also some types of delusion exist and are sustained at a higher level (such as "everyone is getting at me"), where the delusion itself seems to alter the interpretation of low-level perceptions in its favour, rather than depending on specific faulty misinterpretations.

Drugs can cause dangerous delusional behaviour, and the classic example of this is when a hallucinatory drug makes someone think they can fly, and they attempt to prove this by jumping from a high place.

Music can be used to rouse people's feelings, particularly in religious and political situations. However the roused feelings usually disappear rather quickly when the music is switched off, which limits the ability of music to single-handedly inspire people to irrational action. But in cases where people want to deceive themselves, then music can play a role in helping to dispel any discomfort caused by doubts and uncertainties about the causes that they want to believe in.


So, is music a drug? The short answer is "yes, sort of". The long answer is that it can be considered similar in the strength and nature of its effects to a mild recreational drug, in that:

Postscript: Designer Music

In the last chapter of my book What is Music? Solving a Scientific Mystery, I discuss the future of music, and in particular the effect on future music of a full scientific understanding of what music is. It seems very likely that such an understanding would result in the discovery of algorithms for the composition of original strong music.

Such "scientifically" composed music may be much stronger than existing music and may lead to higher and more dangerous levels of music addiction. Music "junkies" will be tied all day to their music-generating computers which they have programmed to continuously generate new strong music tied to their own personal musical preferences and tastes.

If music addiction starts to threaten human civilisation, governments may feel that they have to "do something about it", and perhaps they will ban the distribution of music composition algorithms, and ban ownership of general purpose computers powerful enough to execute those algorithms. Of course it seems unlikely that they could succeed in imposing such bans, and there may be very little that can be done to prevent distribution of such a computer/brain "virus" once it goes "wild". At least with designer drugs you still need chemical knowledge, skills and equipment to put any particular formula into action, but with designer music there is no such restriction.

Update (17 October 2007)

A followup to this article can be found at Music: A Drug, Which Used To Be Stronger Than It Is Now.