Music, drugs, and rock n’ roll

c70f72d2f5ec952d0cc995fce1d4536cYou know that feeling when you hear a song and it instantly becomes your new favorite? When you can’t get enough, you put it on repeat, and you find yourself hearing it everywhere? I searched for a long time for a word or phrase that encompassed that feeling. Or more specifically, the feeling when the song finally loses its emotional spark and becomes ordinary again, subtly whisked away into the endless sea of playlists. Well, I found that phrase several years ago, in a play that I wrote some music for. The play was a series of poems, and in one poem, the speaker “wore out the magic” of a Spanish dance. I was struck.

A few years later, I was listening to a very complicated and interesting lecture in one of my music therapy graduate courses. Basically, my professor was discussing how music motivates parts of the brain at the cellular level. He said, “Dopamine gives cells their seeking behavior,” which makes sense. We all know music causes our bodies to release dopamine and endorphins through the chemical reactions that occur in the brain.

I thought back to my idea – wearing out the magic. I asked my professor about this idea and how it related to the discussion – the release of dopamine. What happens when you no longer feel that rush? And also, what is happening when you introduce novelty (like a new song)? He responded with a fascinating answer. He said the only thing he could compare it to was drugs. The more you indulge in a song, the more of a “fix” you need to feel that renewed high. Novelty can bring that. And time. Have you ever noticed how excited you get when you hear a song you used to love (see top) but haven’t heard it in a long time. There’s your fix.

After processing all of this information, it seemed pretty clear to me why so many famous musicians turn to drugs. They write (or are the voice of) a hit song, perform to thousands of fans – they must being riding quite a high. And then it all comes down. Night after night. That’s a lot of up and down, which can create a very unstable feeling, especially if the person is still maturing or insecure. So what else can give them that high? What’s a quick….fix?

I don’t have a solution to this problem, but perhaps a rather unique insight because of my work as a music therapist, and it’s this: Musicians might use drugs to provide that high – to match the benefits they get from their music. I use music to provide the benefits of drugs without using drugs.

Troubled musicians use drugs in place of music. I help the troubled by using music in place of drugs.

My patients are in hospice. They take a lot of medications, mostly for pain and anxiety. Personally, I don’t believe music therapy can completely take the place of drugs, but I believe music therapy can allow for a smaller dosage and lessened frequency of drugs.

Music is supposed to make you feel better, it was designed that way. So are drugs. But the difference between music and drugs is that music has (very little to) no harmful side effects. And that’s what I love about music therapy. It is a positive, enriching way to lift someone from a dark place without any* threat of harm. As a music therapist, it’s my job to pick the right drug (song) in the right dosage (volume, tempo, complexity) to reach the proper outcome (smile, memory, relaxation). I trust the music. I just hope the magic never wears out.

*It doesn’t escape me that some music can bring back painful memories and events, but for the most part, I think people would agree that music is painless.