Human mind, feelings & emotions

Is listening on repeat … an addiction?


Most people these days have an adequate understanding of what music is. Many people enjoy listening to it, and some even enjoy creating it. But what actually is music? How did this combination of sounds become something many of us swear we cannot live without?

Music has three ‘simple’ definitions according to the Merriam-Webster online dictionary:

  1. sounds that are sung by voices or played on musical instruments
  2. written or printed symbols showing how music should be played or sung
  3. the art or skill of creating or performing music

It’s hard to imagine being in an age that didn’t have music to listen to, but it is even harder to imagine the invention of music, someone had to have encountered some serious judgement when they strung together a whole lot of random sounds. While our natural curiosity, us humans strive to find answers to everything, historical events, predictions of the future, things that might be in the areas we can’t reach. But there are just some things we cannot answer. One of those things is the origin of music. Historians are able to tell us that music was invented prior to recorded history, so we can only has at a guess as to how it came about. Boiled down it has been suggested that early ‘music’ either originated as a means of entertainment, or as a tactic of hunting, in perhaps luring the animals towards the hunters. It has even been suggested that music may out-date the beginning of early spoken language, or that animals might have influenced our musical development. Think of all the animal influences we might have experienced over the years! Gibbons, birds, frogs, cicadas! (read more about the history of music).

around a fireTo read about the controversy surrounding the origins of the first musical instruments read d’Errico et al’s 2003 paper Archaeological Evidence for the Emergence of Language, Symbolism, and Music—An Alternative Multidisciplinary Perspective.

Why we listen to music

Music is everything to me, my answer to the would you rather? I would rather lose my sight and keep my hearing then the other way around. For me music influences my feelings much more than most visual stimuli. Music is a pathway to my emotions, it helps me to understand what I am feeling and gives me a chance to be reflective of myself.

But there are many reasons as to why people listen to music. The music that a lot of the world today associate with is created for entertainment and enjoyment purposes. The creators of the music are doing so because the audience will enjoy listening to it. But there is also the more traditional, cultural avenue of music, where it is not being played or created for entertainment, rather it is being played as part of a long-standing tradition. A typical western example would be the traditional marriage song that plays as the Bride walks down the aisle, this song (at least now days) is not used for entertainment purposes, rather it is an expected tradition for an important custom. In Thailand you can walk around temples like the Wat Pho in Bangkok and listen to the melodic ritual chanting of the Monks, another traditional form of music not for entertainment purposes.

What are the benefits of listening to music?

screenshotJust searching ‘positive effects of listening to music’ in google scholar brings up 463,000 results in just 0.08 sec. That is a lot of published research on music, and the fact that the research actually managed to get published means it is probably showing how music is beneficial (see article on how the Social sciences suffer from severe publication bias).

This list compiled from Scott Christ‘s article ‘20 Surprising, Science-Backed Health Benefits of Music‘ on  introduces some areas that music has been shown to help.

PHYSICAL performance MENTAL performance
Improved performance in high pressure situations eg. Sports final (1) Motivates & improves performance during exercise (7, 8, 9, 10)
Enhanced blood vessel function (2) Helps to eat less (11)
Improved recovery rate post-workout (3) Improves cognitive performance (12, 13, 14)
Eased pain (4, 5) Induce meditative states (15)
Improvements during illness recovery/management (5) Reduce stress & anxiety (16, 17, 18)
Improved sleep quality (6) Elevate mood (19, 20)
Relieve depression symptoms (21)

It is unclear at this stage whether some of these improvements seen in the physical column are in fact due to improvements in the mental aspect, ie. perhaps eased pain is actually due to the music having a positive influence on the persons mood or even just distracting them rather than directly decreasing the pain, this is something though that would prove to be difficult to test.

Listening on repeat?


I know you all do it, sometimes even with songs that you are embarrassed to admit. But the question most of us wonder is why we find ourselves listening to one song 25 times in a row!? It pisses off our flatmates, friends and family when we blast the same song twice in a row, but for myself anyway, I usually have no comprehension of the song even restarting and playing again!

Firstly I might discuss the times I tend to listen to music on repeat. The first most obvious time is when I have a report deadline looming, the deadline itself isn’t what gets me grooving on repeat, but the last minute manic typing is. I related particularly well to another blog post by Ryan Holiday, he writes about a ‘Guilty, Crazy Secret that helps him write‘ and you guessed it, it’s listening to music on repeat, but not just any music, it has to be pop music (not the part I relate to). What I can relate to is when he talks about needing to get into a creative mindset and reduce the background ‘noise’ that is life, real noise and metaphorical noise as in busy-ness. He says that the typical ways of removing these distractions can often leave the atmosphere feeling “empty”, that’s where it is up to the individual to fill the emptiness, only a tiny bit, without making it distracting. And if you listen to one song on repeat, you know the rhythm, the melody, the lyrics, nothing is of a surprise to you anymore, yet the actual music is filling that empty void enough to remove ’emptiness’ as a distraction.


This being said, I am a sucker for a good song, and when I find one I like, chances are I will listen to it on repeat many times. Usually the only thing that stops me from replaying a fifth time is the fact my flat has thin walls, and I know not all my flatmates appreciate my music taste, let alone want to listen to the same song through a wall a billion times. So why does this repetition occur if it’s not necessarily about getting in a creative zone?!

Elizabeth Hellmuth Margulis a professor (and the director of) the Music Cognition Lab at the University of Arkansas has done a bit of research into this area and has even written a book about it ‘On Repeat: How Music Plays the Mind‘. In her video embedded below, she talks about how much the brain likes repetition, and at 1.50mins you can listen to a recorded sentence, then you listen to parts of it repeated, afterwards you listen to see if you notice a difference when the original sentence gets replayed. This weird phenomenon suggests that we just like repetition. But why?

SMT-V 1.1: Elizabeth Hellmuth Margulis, “Repetition & Musicality” from SMT-V on Vimeo.

Why we ‘like’ the repetition … addiction?

Remember that post where I talked about endorphins? Well dopamine, a neurotransmitter similar to an endorphin, sends happy signals to our brain when we listen to music (your brain pretty much responds to music as it responds to eating food or sex). Remember back to the post about addiction? food and sex were both on the ‘list’ of things to potentially get addicted to, so was music … and this reward system and dopamine is the reason.

So we can assume that we can get addicted to music, but does repetition of a song release more dopamine, strengthening the addiction?

The Mere Exposure effect or theory perhaps helps to explain this, where the theory suggests that the more exposure we have to a stimulus, the more our brain ‘likes’ it. This is often why songs get repeated on the radio so many times, why companies will pay for multiple adverts during one show, why many pop songs tend to have repetitive lyrics, and so on.

Habituation is also a potential contender to explain our repetition understanding, this explanation would completely negate the mere exposure theory as to habituate to something means the repetition is decreasing how we respond to the stimulus. Perhaps what we come to ‘like’ is not actually the music itself, but the ability to ‘understand’ the music.

By already knowing how the music is played we can anticipate what happens next, perhaps sing along, and when we get it right, our reward system kicks in and we give ourselves a pat on the back and perhaps some more dopamine. This feeling of knowing the music gives us a greater feeling of connection to the artist and to the music and increases the relatability, perhaps why we get such a great bond with the music that we listen to on repeat.

To conclude:

  • The creation and origin of music is hotly debated
  • Music is listened to for enjoyment, entertainment, culture and tradition
  • Music can be beneficial mentally as well as physically
  • Listening on repeat can help set up an ideal zone for creativity
  • Sometimes we listen on repeat for enjoyment
  • Listening to music releases dopamine (*warning bells* *addiction*)
  • The mere exposure effect suggests we come to enjoy repeated stimuli
  • *but* Habituation suggests we respond less to repeated stimuli
  • Repetition improves our anticipation success (we know the songs better) and therefore get a feeling of accomplishment, perhaps dopamine, and perhaps feelings of  comradery and relatability with the artist and song

As usual any questions or parts you think I should delve deeper into, let me know in the comments and I can see what I can do!


One thought on “Is listening on repeat … an addiction?

  1. Pingback: Musical earworms?? | mind-psyience

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