I Did It All for the Dopamine

When love for live music crosses the ticket line to addiction.

Skipped out on rent to blow extra cash at Coachella? Scheduled a pregnancy around a Phish concert? How about letting mom’s birthday cake candles melt just to spend an extra hour with Dave?

Find me a harmless hobby or a gentle habit and I’ll show you someone who’s developed a full-blown addiction. We humans are good at getting hooked, but why? Addiction has its roots in a neurotransmitter called dopamine. This chemical plays an integral role in the pleasure we derive from sex, food and yes, rock ‘n roll. The first time you hear a song you like, one or more elements in the music causes an increase in the level of dopamine in your brain. This might lead you to download the tune and listen to it over and over again for days (admit it, you’ve done this). But after hearing it many times, the pleasure subsides because you no longer have the cues to make the dopamine to kick in as powerfully. In other words, it gets old.

This is why live music takes on greater importance for music lovers. Even the most manufactured pop stars perform their songs a little bit differently with each gig, and musicians who are known for improvisation manage to keep their fans not only interested but coming to shows repeatedly.

The ‘high’ occurs not only when you feel, taste or hear something that you thoroughly enjoy but also with its anticipation. With bands like Phish, Dave Matthews and of course, the Dead, the set list always changes and predicting which songs are going to be performed is part of the ride. As one song ends the thrilling deduction process begins again for the next song. If you’re right and it’s a song that you really love, dopamine, that wonder drug, kicks right back in again.

Concerts have a communal spirit that can help ‘feed’ the addiction. I remember watching the Dead and feeling a sense of connection with the strangers around me as we danced to “Sugar Magnolia.” (And it’s not just a substance-induced euphoria.)

Live music can provide a transcendental and very personal experience. Phish follower, Jon Bates, says, “It’s like a religion for me. It really gets deep inside you.”

Dopamine’s role in our affinity for music can border on the extreme. The general medical consensus is that as long as it does not negatively impact your life, being obsessed with seeing live music is a harmless habit. Besides, is planning a pregnancy around a tour all that different from trying to conceive in February so you end up with a little Scorpio?

Image: Carlo Cravero