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10 Surprising Ways Music Can Be Bad For You

by Mike Floorwalker
fact checked by Jamie Frater

It’s hard to assert the case that music is detrimental to youth anymore. From Elvis to gangsta rap and beyond, parents have sought to pin a litany of problems on our favorite pop stars (drug use, “Satanic panic,” and wanton violence, to name a few) even though no reputable scientific research has shown these fears to be merited.

Of course, you’ve read the title of the article, and you probably know full well that a case being difficult to make has never once stopped anyone from doing it anyway. Helpfully, plenty of scientific research has shown that:

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10 Pop Stars Endorse Terrible, Unhealthy Products

It’s safe to say that Kanye West and Katy Perry aren’t actually trying to entice you into a lifestyle of hedonism and debauchery. They just know what sells records, and they’re fond of selling a lot of them. Records never hurt anybody, but junk food has, and most pop stars are equally fond of selling a lot of that, too.

A shockingly extensive study conducted by the New York School of Medicine, which examined all product endorsements by major pop stars between 2000 and 2014, had literally nothing good to say in its findings: Food and beverage companies spend around $2 billion per year on ads which specifically target youth. Individual celebrity endorsement deals average upwards of $1 million, suggesting that a great deal of importance is placed upon them by the advertisers. Also, the vast majority of products endorsed were high-calorie, sweetened soft drinks or “nutrient-poor” food products.

This being the case, one would expect an overall rise in child and teen obesity over this time period—which is exactly what another independent study found. Covering 1999–2012, the study of children and teens by Wake Forest and University of North Carolina researchers concluded that “all classes of obesity have increased over the last 14 years [ . . . ] Unfortunately, there is an upward trend of more severe forms of obesity and further investigations into the causes of and solutions to this problem are needed.”

9 Hearing Damage In Teens Is Growing

Are earbuds to blame for teens hearing loss?

While teenagers have always preferred their music loud, it appears that the recent advent of ubiquitous portable music devices is making it easier than ever for them to cause permanent damage to their hearing. According to a recent study by McMaster’s Department of Psychology, Neuroscience and Behaviour in Canada, a growing percentage of teens are engaging in “risky listening habits”—in large part due to the growing trend of shutting out the outside world via blasting earbuds.

Fully one quarter of the 170 kids surveyed for the study were experiencing the symptoms of early-onset tinnitus, a chronic and unceasing ringing in the ears, that ordinarily doesn’t appear in adults until after the age of 50. Although tinnitus can be temporary (like after a particularly loud concert) the type that is accompanied by sensitivity to loud noise, as reported by the kids in the study, is a sign of auditory nerve damage and therefore likely permanent hearing damage down the road.

Larry Roberts, author of the study, advocates a campaign similar to that of early anti-smoking efforts to get the message out about this issue—said message being “turn the music down,” as the only cure for tinnitus is prevention.

8 Sad Music Can Increase Anxiety And Neuroses

Finnish researchers are very, very interested in the effect of music on the brain, having conducted multiple studies over the last couple of decades showing with relative certainty that emotions can be regulated effectively with the use of music in therapy. A 2015 study wanted to better understand if listening to music on your own can be a form of “self-regulation,” and in a complete bummer of a finding, it concluded that listening to sad music all the time can indeed have a negative effect on mental health. They reached this conclusion by exposing subjects to music of different kinds while undergoing MRI testing, examining which areas of the brain were activated by which cues, and following up with psychological testing.

A different study by many of the same researchers focused specifically on lyrics, comparing the reactions of subjects to happy vs. sad music, with and without lyrics. Their finding, put simply: Happy music makes you happy, and sad music makes you sad, but happy music with happy lyrics makes you even happier, and sad music with sad lyrics makes you even sadder, perhaps even contributing to emotional problems. At this time, there apparently has been no comment from Adele as to whether she will stop making music for the public good.

7 Music Disrupts Studying And Work Performance

In a simultaneously amusing and terrifying-sounding study out of the University of Wales, researchers examined the ability of subjects to recall information while being exposed to various sounds. Five different conditions were employed—silence, music favored by the subject, music the subject did not like, a voice repeating random numbers, and a voice repeating the number three. Why three and not a different number or a random word like “spoon?” We’re glad you asked, because we thought the same thing, but the study didn’t clarify. Sorry.

At any rate, subjects were found to have performed the most poorly when listening to music—any music, whether they liked it or not. They performed best in silence . . . and while listening to the repeated number three. The authors speculated that the changing patterns of notes and phrases may negatively affect the ability to recall things in sequence, but curiously, they did not speculate on what the deal could have been with the whole “repeated number three” thing.

Readers of a certain age may recall something called the “Mozart Effect,” a term coined by similar research in the 1990s, which suggested that some types of music can increase concentration. However, subsequent studies haven’t borne out this conclusion, and this recent one seems to have put the final nail in its coffin.

6 Listening While Driving Is Dangerous

While anecdotal evidence to support this conclusion can be readily provided by anyone who has ever narrowly avoided a collision while air-drumming to a certain Phil Collins song, there is some pretty convincing science to back it up. In 2004, a Canadian team looked at reaction time in test subjects while in noisy environments, slowly increasing the level of the noise. They found that at 95 decibels—well below the 110 decibel average maximum of a car stereo—reaction time decreased by 20 percent, an incredibly significant percentage when operating a 2-ton vehicle at high speeds.

Not to be outdone, in 2013, Ben-Gurion University scientists put a similar test on the road, with an even more specific focus: Newly-minted teen drivers were run through a course in a student vehicle (the kind with a passenger-side brake) while listening to their favorite music at comfortable levels. It may not surprise you to learn that a whopping 98 percent of these teens made an average of three mistakes, with fully 20 percent of them needing a steering or braking assist in order to avoid a collision. This bears out the findings of previous studies involving longer trips and different types of music, though these studies did suggest that soft, light rock might help a little.

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5 Repetition, Repetition, Repetition

Sir Mashalot: Mind-Blowing SIX Song Country Mashup

To say that pop music all sounds the same would be to repeat a refrain that has changed very little from generation to generation for decades. Unfortunately, however, this generation’s pop appears to be mightily living up to the stereotype. A Spanish study gathered data on a gigantic database of pop songs between 1955 and 2010 and concluded n that the amount of diversity and variation in chords, melodies, and instrumentation has steadily diminished over this period—or, as lead researcher Joan Serra succinctly put it, “We found evidence of a progressive homogenization of the musical discourse.”

Basically, the tools in the musical toolbox have decreased to the point where everyone is using the same ones, and modern popular country can be seen as a particularly egregious example. The above video mashes up six recent popular country songs, but you wouldn’t know it if you weren’t paying attention; they could all practically be the same song.

Running concurrent with this homogenization has been the so-called “Loudness Wars.” That is, the loudness of the overall mix of pop music has also increased steadily over the years, with the idea that songs will sound the same no matter what type of speakers they’re played on. The overall trend is toward sameness and repetition, because . . .

4 Modern Pop Is Engineered To Hook You

It is a not-so-well kept secret that the vast majority of pop tunes over the last couple of decades have been written by a very, very small number of people. The more savvy among you easily associate the names Max Martin and Dr. Luke with an absurd number of hit songs from a ton of different artists, but you may not know that Max Martin (real name Karl Martin Sandberg) helped create the Backstreet Boys or that he and three or four of his associates (also middle-aged Scandinavian people) have practically written every hit song since then.

This goes a long way toward explaining the repetitive, formulaic form that pop has morphed into. But it’s not just the repetitiveness of the songs themselves; it’s also the repetitive nature of music programming that creates a problem. Repetition breeds familiarity, and according to a 2011 Portuguese study involving music exposure while undergoing MRI, taking advantage of this recognition is a kind of cheat to reaching the pleasure centers of the brain. (As are recreational drugs, but we digress.) The idea is that it’s largely the formula itself that keeps listeners returning, which is especially troublesome given that . . .

3 Pop Music Might Erode Your Creative Intelligence

You may be aware of recent analysis showing that the average reading level of pop music lyrics has steadily declined in recent years to just below a third-grade level. Analyst Virgil Griffith helpfully chipped in with a chart showing the average SAT scores of popular music fans relative to who their favorite artists were. The combined results suggest what you must expect by now: Fans of pop music tend to be less creative (and, oddly, less at ease with themselves) than fans of genres with more musical variety.

Now, we’re not saying that listening to pop music makes you an idiot or even that all pop is bad. But we’re also not saying that music that demands a little more from its listeners doesn’t deserve a little more airtime or that Max Martin and friends haven’t made enough money writing the same songs over and over again. And we are definitely not saying that this effect combined with severely dwindling resources for music education in schools won’t help to produce a generation of musically illiterate non-artists who will go on to make even less challenging music. But once again, we digress.

2 Music Can Negatively Affect Your Relationships

Sexual imagery in popular music and videos has long been ubiquitous, but the fact that teenagers like to listen to music and also like to have sex certainly doesn’t suggest anything Earth-shaking. A 2006 study of almost 1,500 teens found, however, that teens who heavily listen to music featuring such subject matter are more likely to start having sex earlier than those who do not, by a margin of almost two to one. The study’s authors found that the pervasive message in such music—that of studly, carefree men and subservient, sex object women—is reinforced even if it isn’t closely paid attention to, opining, “We think that [it] really lowers kids’ inhibitions and makes them less thoughtful,” in terms of their decisions.

A later study of such imagery in videos, this one focusing on teen women and younger girls, confirmed the likelihood that frequent exposure may not only influence how girls see themselves (with greater effect the younger the girl is), but also could actually effect their ability to have healthy relationships. Study coauthor Stacey Hust of the Edward R. Murrow College of Communication said, “Essentially when women perceive this heterosexual scripting that’s in the media . . . [this] can affect, influence or inform how they think men and women should behave toward one another.”

So, we’ve determined that a steady regimen of pop music can help on your road to becoming a fat, sad, hearing-impaired, perpetually distracted dullard who doesn’t know how to talk to people. But it’s okay; don’t go back to your old heartfelt ballads just yet, because . . .

1 Songs About Growing Old Might Make You Die Sooner

In what must have been the single most depressing study of its kind to conduct, researchers from the Anglia Rustin University in Cambridge, England, analyzed 76 songs that invoke the topic of aging. It was found, of course, that the average sentiments expressed toward the subject are overwhelmingly negative, generally associating growing old with such heartwarming concepts as frailty, dependence, loneliness, and death. This prompted lead study author Jacinta Kelly to observe, “What we’re trying to get across is that this kind of bitterness or hostility is promoted or conveyed and it’s not a trivial thing to explore. You can absorb negativity and it can have consequences for your health.”

This observation has been confirmed by similar studies showing that stereotypes about aging in culture can have the effect of fostering a negative attitude toward the process in the elderly, which can cause illness to be prolonged and overall health to be worse—even contributing toward a decline in social activity and reluctance to seek medical assistance.

In other words, no matter where your specific tastes lie, modern music is a terrible, brain-numbing waste of time that is literally trying to kill you, and you should stop listening to it immediately. Now if you’ll excuse us, we’re going to go lock ourselves in our room, where we will absolutely not be blasting Taylor Swift at top volume in our headphones while preparing our next list.

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fact checked by Jamie Frater
Mike Floorwalker

Mike Floorwalker's actual name is Jason, and he lives in the Parker, Colorado area with his wife Stacey. He enjoys loud rock music, cooking and making lists.