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Name That Tune: Can Music Really Influence Our Drug Choices?

We like songs about substance abuse. Who is “we”? Apparently, a majority of the population. Collectively, listeners seem to prefer catchy tunes that talk about being drunk and getting high – that’s especially true among teenagers.

How do we know this? Let’s take a look at Billboard’s Top 100 Hot Country Songs of 2014. Did you know that 69 of these songs have references to drinking? At least a dozen mention alcohol in the title. (Surprise: It’s not just country music and it’s not a “new” trend.) From the Beatles’ “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” to The Weekend’s “Can’t Feel My Face,” we’ve been pushing these songs to the top of the charts for decades.

We know these songs are popular, but do they encourage substance abuse? In all honesty, it’s a tricky chicken vs egg concept. Are they popular because we’re using substances and enjoy tunes about what we do? Do the lyrics make alcohol and drugs sound appealing and encourage us to use them? Or is music simply something we listen to that has no effect on our behavior?

The Science of Sounds

Girl with skateboard on the background wall of graffiti Researchers completed many studies to dig into this topic – often targeting the influence music seems to have on adolescents. Two interesting findings emerged:

  • First, researchers report the association between music and risk-taking behaviors is an emotional response. It seems a negative emotional response to music triggers the risky behavior rather than the type of music.
  • Second, additional studies link the relationship between music and emotions, no matter the age of the listener.

Does this mean, as long as our response to our favorite tunes is positive, we won’t be encouraged to abuse substances? Or does it mean, if our music makes us feel bad, we’ll turn to alcohol or drugs? This debate is far from closed.

Lyrics of Life

Many argue that songs are a source of enjoyment – nothing more. Lyrics don’t dictate our life choices. Others say they never thought about getting drunk on a plane until someone sang a fun song about it. It does seem to make sense that hearing song after song about drinking would encourage the listener to partake. When we hear repeated messages that alcohol and drugs are good solutions to break-ups or other hard times, some of us might start to believe it. Or if every song we hear emphasizes the need for substances to have a “good” time, maybe we start to believe we can’t have fun without them.

Here’s the question: Are we really so easily influenced by catchy tunes? Ultimately, the decision to use remains with each individual. The country star that croons about another tear in his beer can’t make us pop open a can of brew. Just because a rapper sings about his experience with cocaine doesn’t mean we’ll want to try it too.

Maybe song-writers should keep in mind the potential influence they have over their listeners and send better messages. Perhaps today’s musicians could tone it down a bit and find more positive things to sing about. But if they did, would we listen?