Do you crave music like you crave a cookie?

Imagine there is a cookie sitting in front of you. You are hungry. You have been on a diet for months. If you have to look at one more raw, paleo, gluten free snack you are going to scream. And the cookie looks good. It smells good. Without putting it in your mouth, you can practically taste it. It melts on your tongue. This is the cookie to end all cookies, and, suddenly, you forget why you went on that diet in the first place. You want the cookie. You will have the cookie. Nothing is going to get between you and this cookie.

Sound familiar? Have you ever “tasted” a treat before it actually entered your mouth? This might be how craving works. According to smoking addiction researchers, craving is a pre-emptive sense of how pleasure will feel inside your body. A visceral premonition, if you will. But only in certain circumstances.

Imagine the same cookie is sitting in front of you. This time, you are full. You have just finished Christmas dinner and cannot fathom feeling hungry again. You have also given up on that hateful diet. A wise decision. Kudos to you. How do you feel about the cookie? Is it still your soulmate now that it is guilt free?

Probably not. Naqvi et al. believe that, when there is nothing at stake, we do not crave. Craving is a response to conflict and risk, a motivational trick our brains use when we feel reluctant or ambivalent about a course of action. Indeed, why should we waste valuable emotional resources on a decision that is safe and clear cut?

I think that we crave music under similar circumstances. Not music in general, but certain moments in music. At its most fundamental level, music comprises patterns of building tension and resolution. Whether it be classical or EDM, tension and resolution are the “gist” of music. We perceive pleasure in music when built up tension is resolved in a pleasing way, such as a satisfying cadence or bass drop. Craving a safe, predictable musical resolution, however, would be a waste of time and energy. So, does risk exist in music like when we waver on a diet?

Yes. Sort of. Composers embed “risk” in music by creating uncertainty about how building tension will be resolved. They make us wonder whether impending resolution will hit the mark, leaving us elated, or miss it, leaving us frustrated. Here, craving functions as a motivational mechanism, it downplays potential frustration and redirects attention to a “best-case scenario” outcome. Without this mechanism, we are in danger of disengaging with the song and missing out on a perfectly pleasurable resolution.

Perhaps, then, we crave music like we crave the cookie. Perhaps we “feel” the sigh of impending musical resolution before we actually hear it. More importantly, perhaps craving amplifies the pleasure we eventually feel in response to musical resolution. The greater the urgency, the more satisfying the fix. Just like the cookie tastes sweeter when we crave it.

In my research, I am interested in how music changes the way we feel. The emotional shift from craving to satisfaction is an impressive one. I think it is this capacity of music to swing us between salient emotional states, all within the space of a few minutes, that makes it an effective destabiliser of negative emotion. Many of us intuitively seek out music to make ourselves feel better; perhaps it is more sensible medicine than we realise.

Anecdotally, we know that some crave a bass drop in EDM, others crave a cadence in classical music. Little research exists, however, on how we go from hearing sounds to feeling emotionally invested in them. As I have hinted, I think this has something to do with risky musical pleasure, and I am running a research study to test my hypothesis. Specifically, I am playing participants EDM and measuring how much they crave resolution of tension, or the drop. Sort of like a rave, academia style.

Steven Pinker once wrote that he suspected “music is auditory cheesecake”. I agree with him. EDM is no cookie, of course. But it might be the next best thing.

*If you live in Melbourne and would like to participate in this research, you can read more about the Music and Craving Study here

Lehne, M., & Koelsch, S. (2015). Toward a general psychological model of tension and suspense. Frontiers in Psychology, 6. DOI: 10.3389/fpsyg.2015.00079
Naqvi, N., Gaznick, N., Tranel, D., & Bechara, A. (2014) The insula: A critical neural substrate for craving and drug seeking under conflict and risk. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 53-70. PMID: 24690001
Saarikallio, S., Nieminen, S., & Brattico, E. (2012) Affective reactions to musical stimuli reflect emotional use of music in everyday life. Musicae Scientiae, 17(1), 27-39. DOI: 10.1177/1029864912462381  

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Author: Kiralee Musgrove, Neuroscientist on music