Why hearing your favourite songs makes you feel like you’re in love.
I’m going to attempt to talk about something intangible. The way a song makes you feel. And I don’t mean easily labeled feelings like happy, or sad, or wistful. I mean the strange, nameless, sometimes overwhelming feeling you have in your guts when you hear a song you really, really like.
Sometimes it’s a warm feeling, like a pancake-flip in your stomach. Sometimes it’s an urgent tightening of your chest that makes you stop everything you’re doing to listen.
It’s a heightening of senses, an interruption of thoughts, a visitation from another planet.
It’s like falling in love. And like love, there is no rationalising it. Some songs just have that magic.
Your favourite songs won’t be exactly the same as mine. Sonic beauty really is in the eye of the beholder. Like the person you fall in love with, these songs can take you by surprise — as likely to turn up on a weird demo or b-side as at the top of the charts.
And once you’ve been hooked, like the first rush of love, it can bring on a sort of madness. One that makes you play Dookie by Green Day on repeat for all of 1995. And most of 1996.
Here’s the science part…
Falling in love with a record is an all-consuming obsession. It makes us play songs to death, lose our minds on the dance floor, remember lyrics, sounds and subtleties for decades to come. There’s something about great music that pushes our deep psychic buttons.
What exactly is this mysterious power our favourite songs command over us?
Essentially, it’s dopamine. We get a little bump of it every time we hear a song we like the sound of. And like little lab rats, we keep seeking that hit by listening to that song over and over.
Just like we get a little nudge of dopamine every time we satisfy our need to eat, sleep or have sex, we also get it from hearing a certain piece of music. It’s also the neurochemical that gets released when we’re love-struck.
In one study, participants registered a dopamine increase of up to 21% when listening to an enjoyable piece of music. That’s pretty intense pleasure.
This article connects the sensation of listening to music to the feel-good hit of consuming drugs or food. But I’m not sure I have any dining experiences that quite compare to being thumped in the ears by Mogwai at the tender age of 17. An experience so deafeningly beautiful and overwhelming that I stood, alone in the middle of the crowd, and wept.
Were they tears of joy? Or sadness? I’m not sure. The physical sensation was a chest tightening, an acceleration of emotion that rose up through my body and simply leaked out of my eyes. A strange sort of euphoria, perhaps.
And now for a trip back to the 80s
This is a very round-about way of getting to our number one single of this week, which is Karma Chameleon by Culture Club. It was the band’s biggest hit, the best-selling single in the UK in 1983 and the birth of a star — Boy George.
It was the very first song I remember smacking me round the chops with a dopamine hit.
I was roughly three years old.
I don’t recall the very first time I heard it but I do remember begging Liz, my childminder, to put it on again. It felt like a big deal to ask, I was sure she would say no (isn’t that what grown-ups do after all).
By god, it took us ages to work out exactly what song I was asking for — as anyone who has tried to extract information from a toddler will appreciate. But eventually, we figured out it was Karma Chameleon.
Liz seemed pretty pleased that I’d picked up on a song by her favourite group. She pulled out the LP (it must have been the LP because it was half as big as I was) Colour by Numbers. I gawped at the faces of the band on the cover. They seemed gaudily mysterious and cool. And what was this massive piece of cardboard with a gigantic black plate inside that I absolutely was not allowed to touch? Could noise really come out of this strange, flat object?
But it did.
Like magic, there it was. The song. I’ve no idea if I danced or if I stood still, rapt. I just remember being astounded that this strange and wonderful music was there again, exactly the same as before. Possibly even better on the second listen as now it had a comforting layer of familiarity along with all the lovely sounds.
I was awestruck. I felt like I’d tapped into some sort of secret grown-up world of magical things that you could enjoy over and over again by simply owning them and playing them on a record player. This was what being a grown-up was. This is what life was.
Joy on demand.
The world suddenly felt infinite in its possibilities.
Sad to say I don’t have much affection for Karma Chameleon these days, although the little harmonica intro still gives me a twinge of nostalgia.
I also wish I’d shown anything like as much interest in my dad’s jazz or blues records, but hey. No three-year-old got a dopamine buzz from a Stan Getz retrospective.
Doesn’t stop me playing my children Sonic Youth and hoping for the best though.
This post is part of the #write52 project, a writing initiative to encourage people to write stuff, any old stuff, just some stuff EVERY WEEK. Then tag it #write52.
What, me? I’m Penny Brazier, a freelance writer who is currently bursting with pride as my six-year-old has won his school’s Star Writer award. Planning on signing him up for his own #write52 project forthwith. Expect stories about ninjas. Here is my Twitter which I’m barely on at the moment as BUSY and here is my Instagram which this week features me looking very moody in front of a blue wall.