Music OCD: A Deep Dive into Music Repetition and the Mind
Have you turned on your favorite song, cranked up the volume, and danced around the room to relieve your stress and anxiety? Did this “musical escape” take your mind off upsetting and unwanted thoughts, urges, visions, fears, worries, and emotions? If so, you are not alone. Music can be the ultimate stress reliever. One of the best things about music is that it is always accessible. It is everywhere!
Additionally, your mood, thoughts, and feelings can be influenced by the type of music you listen to. It is normal to turn to music to ease your mind, reduce stress, and uplift your mood. However, when music becomes an obsession or a repetitive and involuntary go-to remedy for “problems” that you are unable to stop and that are negatively affecting your life in some capacity, then there is a good possibility that you may be struggling with music OCD.
If you are wondering if there is a relationship between music and OCD, look no further because in this article, we will discuss the link between music and OCD, take a deep dive into music repetition and the mind, so you can identify the signs and symptoms of music OCD, so you can get the appropriate treatment for it.
What is OCD?
Obsessive-compulsive disorder, commonly referred to simply as OCD, is an anxiety disorder that involves non-stop, unwanted, intrusive, excessive, and/or upsetting thoughts, worries, feelings, urges, or visions (obsessions), and/or repetitive behaviors or rituals or routines (compulsions). Examples of compulsions include excessive counting, checking, organizing, repeating, hand washing or cleaning, avoiding, or seeking reassurance.
OCD usually presents sometime between late childhood and adolescence, although it can present earlier or later than this time. It is a common mental health condition, affecting between two and three million people. There are also many different types of OCD, ranging from more common forms like hoarding OCD and contamination OCD, to uncommon forms like racism OCD, solipsism OCD, meta OCD, and reading OCD.
OCD is life-altering in that it can and often does consume a large portion of one’s time and energy. It also impacts relationships, self-esteem and self-confidence, academic or career success, health and well-being, and so much more. To date, there is no “cure” for OCD, however, there are effective treatments for it, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), exposure-response and prevention (ERP) therapy, SSRI antidepressants or antipsychotics, natural remedies, like hypnosis, yoga, CBD, a service dog, probiotics, homeotherapy, or crystals, and/or self-help tools like Impulse Therapy, an online OCD recovery treatment program.
Psychotherapy is usually the first line of treatment followed by medication when therapy alone is ineffective or unsafe. If neither option is practical, this is termed “treatment-resistant OCD.” This type of OCD may be treated with a residential treatment program, neurofeedback therapy, deep brain stimulation procedures, and/or surgery.
How is Music Linked to OCD?
Music is a universal language in that people, regardless of their geographical location, religion, sexual orientation, gender, age, race or ethnicity, skills and abilities, education, or economic level can experience and benefit from music. Music is not linked to any group of people or specific part of the world. It can be found in every culture, gender, and region. Music can also be beneficial for one’s mind and body.
For instance, music can be calming when you become overly stimulated or excited, stressed, or anxious. Or, it can be exciting when you feel tired and unmotivated. Music can also provide you with the courage and motivation to accomplish a goal or take a risk. It can also be a “shoulder to lean on” after a loss of a loved one or pet, or a breakup. Thus, music can play many different roles in a person’s life.
Music can be especially beneficial for OCD sufferers. For instance, music can provide a much-needed distraction from unrelenting and highly upsetting thoughts, fears, emotions, worries, urges, and visions (obsessions), and ritualistic behaviors (compulsions). It can also help “calm” or “quiet” your mind so you do not feel as stressed or anxious – common triggers of OCD. Music can also help OCD sufferers focus and concentrate better. This is important because people with OCD have a hard time focusing and concentrating due to their racing thoughts and continuous urges to perform rituals or routines.
Music can block out the “noise” in your mind, so you can focus on your tasks. Music can also be used as an ERP therapy aid. ERP therapy involves gradually exposing a person to their trigger(s) so they lose their power or hold over them. Well, playing “calming” music while exposing an OCD sufferer to their dreaded trigger or fear can, in essence, reduce the stress and anxiety surrounding their trigger(s) so they no longer cause the same response – i.e., OCD symptoms. In other words, music creates a “safe space” for them to take steps towards confronting and/or challenging their thoughts, fears, emotions, urges, and/or visions in a “calm,” safe, and controlled environment.
Additionally, people with OCD can include music in their self-care routine. For instance, you could turn on soft music while you take a warm aromatherapy bubble bath at the end of a long day. Or, you could turn on soft music at bedtime to help you fall into a peaceful sleep. Music, in these cases, is not only comforting but also uplifting. Musicians with OCD can use music to help channel their stress and anxiety into something productive and meaningful to them. In other words, music can be used to help them express themselves and as an outlet for their mixed emotions.
But, while music can offer a variety of benefits for OCD sufferers, it can also cause problems for some people. For instance, some people with OCD find that loud, “banging,” or chaotic music triggers or worsens their OCD symptoms instead of helping them. Loud, “banging,” and chaotic music can cause some OCD sufferer’s stress and anxiety to skyrocket, leading to OCD flares. This type of music can also prevent OCD sufferers from being able to focus or concentrate on their tasks, leading to an increase in upsetting thoughts (obsessions) and repetitive behaviors (compulsions).
Also, surprisingly, music can spur obsessions. More specifically, the lyrical content in songs can provide fodder for intrusive thoughts, fears, urges, visions, worries, etc., which, in turn, can trigger or worsen one’s stress and anxiety. An example of this would be a song that talks about contracting a serious virus like HIV or AIDS, the world coming to an end, police brutality, being shot or killed, dying of a drug overdose, a cheating partner, the loss of a loved one, etc. These types of lyrical content could cause someone with OCD to have an OCD relapse due to what they heard in the song.
Sometimes, music can contribute to a vicious OCD cycle. For example, an OCD sufferer may become “fixated” on a specific song because of how they “relate” to the words in it (i.e., heartbreak). However, being able to “relate” to the song only makes that person’s stress and anxiety escalate, causing more OCD symptoms (i.e., more frequent and more severe). Likewise, some OCD sufferers can become extremely obsessed with or afraid of “missing something” by not listening to a specific song or genre of music. This is also considered an OCD obsession.
Additionally, some people with OCD can begin to use music as a “crutch” or “escape” so they do not have to “deal” with challenging, difficult, or upsetting situations. In this case, music becomes the only thing that “calms” the person down. The problem with this is that these individuals do not learn the important healthy coping skills and strategies needed to effectively manage their obsessions and/or compulsions. Lastly, listening to loud music all of the time can lead to hearing loss, headaches, or ringing in the ears (tinnitus). It could also lead to weight gain or obesity if all you do all day is sit down and listen to music.
Can a Person Really Become Obsessed With Music?
When a person becomes obsessed with music, it is referred to as music OCD.
There is a myth that if a person listens to music a lot, is extremely picky about their music choices, or enjoys music too much, they must have OCD. While that may be true in some cases, it is not true in all cases. Some people may just love music – they appreciate the beauty of it, while others may be obsessed with it. The key difference between these two groups is how it is affecting their lives.
If all you can think about is music to the point that you are unable to concentrate on anything else, then you may have music OCD, but if your love of music is not affecting your ability to focus, concentrate, and complete tasks, or if it is not impacting your self-esteem and self-confidence, ability to go to work or school, or develop and maintain healthy relationships, it is reasonable to say that you probably do not have music OCD.
Remember, for it to be classified as OCD, you must spend an hour or more of your day consumed with obsessions and/or compulsions. And, these obsessions and/or compulsions must be so upsetting, intrusive, and repetitive that they are negatively impacting your quality of life. Also, if you have tried to stop your symptoms but have been unsuccessful that is a good indication that you may be dealing with OCD. This also goes for a “fixation” on music.
But, although there are many different types of OCD “officially” listed in the DSM-5, music OCD is not one of them. Does that mean that music OCD is not a real type of OCD? No, it does not. Musical obsessions are very real to the people who experience them. For instance, a person with music OCD may become obsessed with the order in which songs are played on the radio or even in their playlist. Or, they may experience intense urges to listen to a particular song a set number of times – not listening to the song the required number of times can spark or worsen OCD symptoms.
A person with music OCD may also become highly stressed or anxious if the song skips or pauses, or if they are unable to hear the song without any distractions, such as a barking dog, a ringing phone, a talking partner, a television show, a person sneezing or coughing, a baby crying, etc.
OCD sufferers are prone to experiencing stuck song syndrome (SSS), last-song syndrome (LSS), or intrusive music imagery (IMI). Stuck song syndrome (SSS), also known as an earworm, occurs when a person becomes “fixated on” or “stuck on” a particular song or verse in a song. In this scenario, the person cannot get the lyrics or song out of their mind. These individuals continuously reply to the song or lyrics in their minds, often neglecting their household, parenting, personal, and school or work tasks to listen to, think or worry about, or sing the song. Being unable to get the song out of one’s mind can cause extreme distress for people with OCD.
Likewise, some people with music OCD may experience last-song syndrome (LSS). Last-song syndrome (LSS) is like stuck-song syndrome (SSS), however, this syndrome occurs when a person becomes “fixated on” or “stuck on” the last song they heard. In other words, they are unable to get the song out of their mind. This song is usually a song this person has heard before (i.e., the last song on a playlist), but it does not have to be. Because the song keeps replaying in their mind, a person with OCD will likely have a hard time focusing or concentrating on their tasks and responsibilities.
Lastly, some people with music OCD may experience involuntary musical imagery (IMI). Involuntary musical imagery (INMI), also referred to as “sticky tunes,” usually involves a new song or melody that becomes “stuck in” a person’s mind. Like the other syndromes, the song repeats over and over again in the mind, preventing this person from accomplishing their goals. Because the person does not know the lyrics or the words to the song completely, it can trigger stress and anxiety that can worsen OCD symptoms.
What Does the Research Say?
Previous studies suggest that music therapy, in some cases, could be beneficial for OCD. More specifically, music could produce a “calming” effect in the mind, which could reduce or alleviate OCD symptoms. As a result, researchers recommend adding music therapy to OCD treatment plans.
Similarly, a 2023 study found that adding music, specifically classical music to OCD treatment plans (i.e., art therapy, exercise, a healthy diet, self-care, etc.) could be beneficial for people struggling with OCD, especially those struggling with treatment-resistant OCD.
Earlier studies also suggest that OCD sufferers who experience involuntary musical imagery (INMI) syndrome have tried to cope with the unwanted INMI. The most common (and most successful) coping skills involved identifying the song or lyrics in question, and using alternative “distractions” to take one’s mind off the song or lyrics.
According to a 2016 case study, a 19-year-old man with music OCD attributed the music he replayed in his mind (i.e., last song, new song, melodies, etc.) to the stress he was experiencing from taking advanced courses in school, along with social isolation and shyness. He continuously had intrusive loops of music replaying in his mind and no matter what he did to stop them they persisted.
According to another OCD case study, a musician’s main music OCD symptom was recurring visions of musical sounds featuring various instruments. Researchers suggested that this type of musical obsession could be overlooked or misdiagnosed because there is not a lot of research on the various signs and symptoms of music OCD.
Researchers also found that OCD sufferers or people with obsessive-compulsive personality traits appear to be hypersensitive to loud or “tense” music. They tend to prefer music that is peaceful and harmonious. As a result, the researchers concluded that people with OCD may benefit from music when it comes to reducing their OCD symptoms.
Researchers also found that “stuck song syndrome” or “earworms” are extremely common in people with OCD, but that this syndrome can cause a significant amount of emotional distress, which can disrupt daily functioning. As a result, the researchers suggest that a person with music OCD who experiences “stuck song syndrome” seeks psychiatric care.
Conversely, an earlier study found that musical obsessions have often been misdiagnosed as psychotic disorders, which has prevented individuals who struggle with them from getting the appropriate care. Therefore, an accurate diagnosis of music OCD is imperative for treatment success. Researchers caution against using standard OCD treatments to treat musical obsessions because they may be ineffective at reducing these OCD symptoms.
What is It Like To Have Music OCD?
The best way to understand how it feels to have music OCD is to hear it from people who have it. Listed below are personal testimonies from people who are living with music OCD.
- “This is a bit weird. I have had OCD related to relationships, sexual orientation, and self-harm before. Recently, however, whenever I listen to music I really enjoy I start to get thoughts like ‘How do I know if I really enjoy this?’ ‘I just want to like these songs because I think they’re cool,’ Or, ‘I don’t actually like this, I just tell myself that I do,’ etc. It’s really weird.”
- “Loving music has always been a huge part of myself, been a Beatles fan since I was five. It’s a mix of my anxiety too, but I remember thinking, ‘Why isn’t this song making me feel better? Do you not love it enough?’ And, now it’s more ‘I shouldn’t enjoy this because they did ‘bad things’ or because this song is problematic, etc.’ Flashback to when I got super religious and felt guilty for listening to the Beatles because ‘they did drugs and God doesn’t want that, therefore I’m sinning.’ Fun times…”
- “Sometimes when I’m listening to music on Spotify, I start to question whether I like the playlist (that I made) or not. I start to feel doubtful of my music taste, and then guilty that I don’t like better music. This leads me to scroll through Spotify throughout the day, trying to find something I think I’ll like, and then ultimately, failing minutes later. Then, skipping to a different playlist. It’s not necessarily debilitating. It’s just one of the most recurring and annoying compulsions I have throughout the day. I hate doubting myself and the things that I (know) I like…”
- Whenever I find a band or artist that I really like, I get really hung up on whether the music really is good or not. I get obsessed with finding out whether the vocalist really is a good singer or if they just use autotune and if the lyrics are good. I’m like ‘Maybe, this really is a shit band but I like it ‘cause I’m into sh*t music.’ And, then because of all these weird thoughts I start doubting if I really like the music at all, even though I know I love it so much. I started doing this with my favorite band of all time and even though things are better now I still feel really guilty when thinking about it….Yeah, it sucks when OCD tries to ruin the things you love the most. Stay strong!”
- “For the past day, I have had songs, recent sounds, and words intrusively repeat inside my head and it is almost even more distressing than my OCD compulsions because I can’t get away from my own brain. The reason I am posting it here is because I did a quick googling and found that it can be related to OCD. I am staying calm and trying to accept it but it’s very intrusive and loud in a way even though I don’t actually hear it. I also feel like the white noise in my room is being amplified right now. It began last night when I was trying to sleep and I should note that I was not tired, but was also hungry and when I went to the bathroom, I felt sort of dizzy almost and had a small pain in my head. Which is different from most nights that I sleep.”
How is Music OCD Treated?
Music OCD is treated like other types of OCD – with psychotherapy, medication, natural remedies, and/or self-help tools. CBT and ERP therapy are the two most common music OCD treatments, while the most common medication is SSRI antidepressants. Mindfulness meditation and hypnosis are two self-help tools that may be beneficial for people struggling with music OCD. A healthy diet, along with regular exercise, and sound sleep are also beneficial for people with this type of OCD.
The key to improving music OCD symptoms is to get your OCD symptoms, in general, under control. Online OCD recovery treatment programs are also beneficial for treating music OCD. These programs, along with OCD support groups, podcasts, and forums, can help you develop healthy coping skills and strategies that you can use when you feel your OCD symptoms creeping up. Once you have a grasp on your OCD triggers, your obsession with music will likely diminish.
- Shiranibidabadi, S., & Mehryar, A. (2015). Music therapy as an adjunct to standard treatment for obsessive-compulsive disorder and co-morbid anxiety and depression: A randomized clinical trial. Journal of Affective Disorders, 184, 13–17. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jad.2015.04.011
- Castle, D., Feusner, J., Laposa, J. M., Richter, P. M., Hossain, R., Lusicic, A., & Drummond, L. M. (2023). Psychotherapies and digital interventions for OCD in adults: What do we know, what do we need still to explore? Comprehensive Psychiatry, 120, 152357. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1016/j.comppsych.2022.152357
- Euser, A. M., & Oosterhoff, M. (2016). Stuck song syndrome: Musical obsessions — When to look for OCD. The British Journal of General Practice, 66(643), 90. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.3399/bjgp16X683629
- Truong, T. P. A., Applewhite, B., Heiderscheit, A., & Himmerich, H. (2021). A Systematic Review of Scientific Studies and Case Reports on Music and Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 18(22), 11799. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph182211799
- Taylor, S., McKay, D., Miguel, E. C., De Mathis, M. A., Andrade, C., Ahuja, N., Sookman, D., Kwon, J. S., Huh, M. J., Riemann, B. C., Cottraux, J., O’Connor, K., Hale, L. R., Abramowitz, J. S., Fontenelle, L. F., & Storch, E. A. (2014). Musical obsessions: a comprehensive review of neglected clinical phenomena. Journal of Anxiety Disorders, 28(6), 580–589. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1016/j.janxdis.2014.06.003
- Williamson, V. J., Liikkanen, L. A., Jakubowski, K., & Stewart, L. (2014). Sticky tunes: How do people react to involuntary musical imagery? PLOS ONE, 9(1), e86170. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0086170
- Rafin, Z.Y. (2016). A 19-Year-Old with Intrusive Loops of Music in His Mind. Psychiatric Annals, 46, 671-673. Retrieved from https://www.semanticscholar.org/paper/A-19-Year-Old-with-Intrusive-Loops-of-Music-in-His-Rafin/0b36576c6d64205b2bad2943b97ac711c6a03e11
- Saha A. (2012). Musical obsessions. Industrial Psychiatry Journal, 21(1), 64–65. https://doi.org/10.4103/0972-6748.110954