Music therapy for addictions?

If you love music, or you can’t stop listening to a certain song, you might joke you’re addicted to it.

Now science has revealed that you in your jest you speak the truth. In fact, music acts on the brain in the same way as drugs, booze – and sex.

The study published in Scientific Reports had human guinea pigs listen to the music they loved in the labs at McGill University, Canada.

Painkillers and music enjoyment

On the first occasion, they took the drug naltrexone, which is used in the treatments of addictions. On a second day, they listened to their sounds of choice they like after popping another pill – this time a placebo.   

So, what did the study discover? When the participants had taken naltrexone, they didn’t get the same buzz while listening to their favourite tunes. However, after taking the placebo, they still loved their music – showing the drug had definitely affected their enjoyment of the song. Interestingly, when they listened to music they had neutral feelings about, the drug didn’t make much impact on their feelings one way or the other.

Dopamine and addiction

It has already been established that the neurotransmitter dopamine is involved in the “reward” associated with music, but this research is the first show drugs also change the way we feel about music.

However, previous research has indicated that playing pleasurable music to a patient while they are having an uncomfortable medical procedure performed can reduce pain, so this all ties in with what scientists have already discovered.

Traditionally, music has been used to help with healing – in the Far East, you have Tibetan singing bowls are said to help bring feelings of extreme relaxation, euphoria and anecdotally are said to help with illnesses. Most doctors would be cynical – but we all know the power of listening to an emotionally charged song when we are feeling sad. Or indeed, having our spirits boosted with a rousing anthem.

This research also throws up the intriguing possibility - can music be potentially used in therapy for addicts?

Many addiction specialists try to replace maladaptive behaviours with healthier pastimes - and music is certainly not bad for us in the way drugs and alcohol are.

Addiction specialist

Addiction expert Dr Dmitri Popelyuk, is a psychiatrist who sees a lot of patients with addictive behaviours. He agrees that dopamine and serotonin play a role in addictive behaviour.

This research also sheds a fascinating light on the connection between drugs, sex and rock and roll. No wonder rock stars like David Bowie, Ozzy Osbourne and Amy Winehouse all had their struggles with narcotics and addictive behaviour. And for those who recovered - like Ozzy - music sis still a positive part of their lives.

Serotonin and addiction

For anyone dealing with addictions, music can be the one guilt-free pleasure to indulge in. Here are three other ways to boost your serotonin levels.


Serotonin levels have been shown to rise when you’ve been out in daylight – the earlier the better. It then converts into melatonin and helps you sleep well. A good reason to get that stroll in.


Research has shown the benefits of massage in boosting serotonin. Whether it’s the human touch or the sensation of massage itself is not clear, but the benefits are real.

Work up a sweat.

Exercise gives the body a big serotonin rush – you’ve probably heard the term ’runner’s high’.  The kind of work out that gets your heart pumping, like an aerobics class, or running or biking, cycling are good bets to feel good - and be healthy.


A type of neurotransmitter - chemicals that help the communication between nerve cells (neurons). Full medical glossary
A chemical that helps the communication between nerve cells (neurons). Full medical glossary
A specialist in the management of mental health conditions. Full medical glossary