Study suggests music can act as an auditory trigger for addictive cravings

New research published in Psychology of Music suggests there may be a link between various types of music and cravings for addictive substances.

It is well known that music is strongly related to emotions, and research has also shown a strong relationship between emotions and substance misuse. However, little research has been conducted on the link between music, emotions, and substance use disorder (SUD).

“Strong emotions are one of the most widely cited maintaining factors for substance misuse . . . the substance numbs or alleviates negative internal states,” said Genevieve Dingle, corresponding author of the study. “Therefore, understanding how substance users emotionally respond to music has potentially important implications for substance use treatment.”

Conducted in Queensland, Australia, the research contained 38 participants—19 patients in a residential treatment facility for SUD and 19 healthy control participants. The study was conducted in two parts. One part measured the link between self-selected songs and cravings in the SUD group, and the other measured the emotional responses of both groups to certain kinds of classical music.

During the initial survey, the SUD patients were asked to list one song that gave them the urge to use substances (labeled an “urge” song) and one song that helped them to stay clean (labeled a “clean” song). At a later date, patients listened to their chosen song and were asked to rate the intensity of their cravings. Scientists found that after listening to the “urge” song, patients experienced a significant increase in their cravings; after listening to the “clean” song, they experienced a decrease.

In the second part of the study, both groups listened to three pieces of classical music. One song has been shown to elicit peaceful feelings; another, happiness; and another, sadness. Participants then rated how the songs made them feel. Individuals in the control group had a significantly stronger response to the happy music than those in the treatment group. Also, the treatment group rated the sad music as more pleasant than the control group.

Though telling, the study is not without its limitations. Though they did not include measures of depression in their questionnaires, the team found evidence of high levels of depression and suicidal thoughts in the treatment group.

“People with depression show more blunted emotional responses to musical excerpts representative of a range of emotions,” said Dingle. This factor may have affected the responses from the treatment group.

The study, the first of its kind, suggests that individuals being treated for SUD should be intentional about selecting certain music to elicit specific emotions.

“It may be useful to evoke strong emotions during therapy . . . to explore and learn to tolerate these emotions in a substance-free environment,” added Dingle.