Quit Treating Music Like Drugs

Quit Treating Music Like Drugs

Note: after this went viral, I filmed a 1-hour, in-depth masterclass on productivity techniques and this very topic. It’s got thousands of students, and is one of the top-rated courses on Skillshare. Watch it (& all my other stuff) for free with this link.

Reality check: the typical person listens to a lot of music.

A recent industry report by Nielson suggests that the average millenial spends approximately 40 hours per week blasting tunes. That’s 6 hours every day of the week, nonstop.

That means that my generation is literally spending as much time listening to music as they are working at full-time jobs. And 40 hours is just the average — many younger people are listening to 50, 60, or even 70 hours of music per week.

I’m not hating on music, per se. I actually think it’s amazing that we live in an era where technology allows us to consume as much as we do, and rest assured I don’t take my Spotify playlist for granted. But I don’t think enough people are talking about the degree to which music has permeated our modern lifestyle, nor are we talking about whether or not listening to 40+ hours of music a week has consequences.

In the 1950’s, everybody smoked cigarettes. Not because they’d done industry-leading research into the pros and cons of tobacco, but because it was just the thing people did back then. Only after a staggering death toll did governments and individuals finally decide to take action, and we’re still feeling the fallout today.

I don’t want music to be the next chapter in humanity’s book on overconsumption. And as optimistic as you might be, nobody can deny that 40+ hours of rhythmic, pumping — and often loud — stimulation is going to have effects on the human brain. It’s just a matter of how significant these effects are, and what we can do to mediate them.

Long Term Music Consumption

Physiologically speaking, music’s mechanism of action is similar to that of a drug. We’ve all heard rappers wax poetic about how music is their addiction, but which drug in particular might surprise you: opiates. That’s right — the biological pathway underlying music’s pleasant effects on our brain mirrors that of heroin and other opioids. So it’s not surprising that modern society has taken as much of a liking to it as it has.

It should be noted that I am in no way ascribing morality to the practice of drug consumption (or music, for that matter). This is not meant to be “shock” content. I am merely providing a dispassionate parallel between their synergistic modes of activity; heroin and music do similar things to your mind in the short term.

And, despite the lack of research in this specific area, I would venture to say there are likely effects in the long term as well. The human brain is remarkably malleable — changing in response to stimulation is one of the main principles underlying neuroplasticity. It’s entirely possible that prolonged music-based stimulation thus has a non-negligible effect on the way we think, remember things, and act. But it’s hard research to do, because of the timeframe involved and because animals don’t understand music the same way we do.

In the long term, I recommend playing it safe. Dedicate chunks of time throughout the day to the practice of silence. Listening to nothing won’t kill you, and it’s also important to have some time alone with yourself. Take a second right now to shut off the background noise, take a deep breath, and think. In my view, too many people get engrossed in stimulation (whether it be music or something else) because they have trouble confronting their own thoughts. It’s much easier to just drown yourself out for a few minutes with a loud song than face the nagging voice inside of your head. But that voice is there for a reason — confront it and work with it.

Because 40 hours, or 800 average-length songs, is a lot any way you cut it. Most things are good in moderation, but something about 114 songs per day (41610 songs per year) doesn’t really seem like moderation to me. We’ve successfully morphed music from a blissful emotional experience into what I consider a tepid background hum. Much like drug users, many of us have become stimulation addicts, placating and pacifying ourselves with songs, beats, and rhythms, when we should instead be giving our brains time to rest and grow.

Short Term Music Consumption

Despite what some people may think, human beings are not good at multitasking. Our neuronal circuitry just isn’t set up for it. Attention is finite resource, and only so much can be allocated to different things before it starts to spread a little too thinly.

If you try and split your work between two things simultaneously, for example, most people think the end result is 50/50 efficiency. But that’s where they’d be wrong.Actually, it’s more like 30/30, with the bulk of your cognitive capacity (the other 40%) down the toilet.

A large amount of research has been done on this, but human beings predominantly excel when immersed in a single task (a condition known as the flow state) with no distractions. This is because of a phenomenon called attentional residue; basically, there’s a tiny bit of “lag time” inherent in switching tasks before your brain gets up to full speed.

This is one of the reasons kids today are so bad at studying — constantly jumping back and forth between your homework, your phone, and your computer means you perform significantly worse at all of them, since your attentional residue takes time to “unglue” from each task.

Here’s what most people don’t realize: music counts as one of those distractions too. Music can be just as significant of an attentional detriment as an explicit task, and many of us are listening to it while performing highly knowledge-intensive tasks like studying or working.

The truth is, music hurts cognitive performance in the short term. And you don’t have to believe me if you don’t want to — believe the scientists that performed the studies below:

  1. The effect of background music and noise on the cognitive test performance of introverts and extraverts
  2. The influence of distraction on reading comprehension: a Big Five analysis
  3. The impact of listening to music on cognitive performance

To sum it up, they suggest that music negatively affects task performance across the board, with a significant inverse correlation between sound intensity and subsequent task scores. In almost every study, people performed better without music than with, and even in cases when music was replaced with white noise, task performance still suffered (though not as much).

What does all of this mean for us? With 40+ hours of music in the background, the majority of millenials are never giving themselves time to adequately exercise their cognitive skills. Just like a drug, we’ve become significantly overdependent on our comfortable melodious companion, and it’s negatively affecting the way we use our time. We’re almost always working significantly below our physiological capacity, and since we’re never pushing our comfort zone, we’re not improving anywhere near as quickly as we should.

How To Fix Your Music Habits

I likely listened to just as much music as any of you — I’d turn on the house speakers as soon as I came in, and I’d never leave home without a pair of earbuds and Spotify. I’d turn on a playlist as I drifted off to bed, and it was usually the first thing I put on in the morning while making breakfast. I never thought there was anything wrong with it, so I never stopped to consider if my life could be lived a different way.

I’m happy to say that the recent changes I’ve made in regards to my own music habits have significantly improved the rest my life. I feel sharper, quicker, and more attentive. My mind wanders less, and when I pick up a task, I finish it faster. I even find myself more alert in conversation — though whether or not this is explicitly due to the decreased music consumption, or just a more active outlook on life, I do not know.

Here’s what I recommend: if you’re a heavy music listener, chuck it for a week. Don’t listen to any music outside of the house. Give your brain respite from the constant barrage of dopaminergic sensory stimulation and learn to enjoy the ambient sounds of your environment. This isn’t permanent, but if you’re anything like me, by the end of the week off you’ll see significant improvements to your focus and your attentional capacity.

Then, start replacing that time with something productive. On your commute, for example, listen to an audiobook instead of Spotify. Audiobooks are one of the most effective things you can do with sunk time, because you can play them while doing highly automatic tasks with little decrease in effectiveness.

Most audiobooks are read at ~150wpm, and most people listen to them at 1.5x speed. So if your commute is half an hour one-way, you’ll end up listening to 13500 words per day — approximately 60 pages. That’s an extra book every week, traded for an average 140 songs of listening time. I’d say that’s more than worth it.

I recognize that most people’s music addictions go significantly further than just their commute, so here are some more tips:

  1. If you listen to music primarily at work to drown out the sound of your coworkers (as many people do), look for alternative seating arrangements that put you in a quieter spot. If that doesn’t work, play white noise instead — while still not ideal, your brain habituates to a standard hum fairly quickly and can still perform at near-max attentional capacity (see research above). That way, you’ll still be able to focus completely on your work while not having to hear your coworkers talk about what they did all weekend.
  2. If you put music on the second you enter the door at home, quit it. Give yourself some time to think. I guarantee your brain doesn’t bite. Instead of making your home’s default mode music, make it no music, and relegate listening time to dinner or special occasions. Your brain needs downtime from stimulation just as much as the rest of your body does, and a bit of peace and quiet goes a long way.
  3. Learn to appreciate silence through meditation. Habitually calm your inner mind, even if it’s for just ten or fifteen minutes at a time. Listening to music all the time pushes your threshold for stimulation very high. Instead, learn to decrease that threshold by paying attention to the sound of silence. Find a quiet corner somewhere and meditate a few times a week.

Society is getting faster and busier every day, and mankind is having trouble keeping up. Our biology wasn’t crafted to handle day-in, day-out 24/7 stimulation. The big symptoms haven’t hit us yet, but we’re seeing small manifestations of our techno-incompatibility all the time; the rising incidence of anxiety, depression, ADHD, and decreased attention spans are all linked to our overindulgence of technology-borne stimulation. And I think that music addiction is one of those problems.

The modern world wants you to consume as much as you can, but the truth is, you shouldn’t. Your brain isn’t a computer, and there’s no reason it should have to act like one. We’re people, not robots. The two most amazing aspects of our lives are our capacity for self-awareness, and our ability to think. Don’t let music be the next big tobacco — make your own conscious lifestyle choices instead of being driven by what the rest of society does. I guarantee that you’ll feel more fulfilled and more in control of your life.

Next time you’re loading up a playlist to listen to, take a second and ask yourself… when’s the last time I listened to me?