I used to do social work for a living, the kind of social work where you work with people in the field to reinforce what they’re learning in therapy. I was also (and still am) a musician. Throughout my time as a social worker, and really throughout my life, I’ve noted the pervasive picture of the musician as addict, the musician as drug user, and the musician as junky.
Then, recently when I was researching the issue, I came across a blog post on heroin as a gateway drug. “How do you picture a heroin user? Once thought to be a drug strictly abused by artists, musicians and the down-and-out, the image of this extremely addictive opioid has begun to change,” the author says.
According to the author of the blog post, more people are using heroin as their first opioid of choice — 33 percent in 2015, compared with 8.7 percent in 2005. Yet the original picture of the musician or artist as heroin user remains attached to the statistics. I, for one, have never used heroin, and I’m a musician who has been playing for 17 years. Perhaps one reason I’ve never used it is because of the stereotype. I’ve never wanted to become a cliche, the junky musician who overdoses and ends up in rehab or dies.
Is the stereotype true? Is there something prompting musicians to be drug abusers? Psychologist Mark Griffiths was wondering if psychoactive drugs can enhance creativity, which prompted him to examine the link between drug use and creativity. After analyzing the scant number of studies available, Griffiths concluded that:
● “Substance use is more characteristic in those with higher creativity than in other populations.”
● “It is probable that this association is based on the inter-relationship of these two phenomena.”
Griffiths found that creative people are more predisposed to abuse substances than other people are, but there doesn’t seem to be a direct link between drug use and creativity. That is, using drugs won’t necessarily make you more creative. “It is more likely that substances act indirectly by enhancing experiences and sensitivity, and loosening conscious processes that might have an influence on the creative process,” Griffiths said.
In other words, some musicians may find that drugs set a stage on which their creative tendencies can come out and play. The loss of inhibitions is a major theme for musicians who use drugs.
Neurologist Dr. Alain Dagher agrees. “The most obvious example of the way a drug can help creativity is that most of us are, for the most part, inhibited in many ways. Many drugs, especially in small doses, can relieve that inhibition,” Dagher told Vice Magazine. Dagher went on to explain that a drug like heroin or cocaine can encourage tangential thinking, which some artists and musicians use to inform their creativity.
Drugs cause your brain to increase production of neurotransmitters like dopamine and endorphins, which causes your brain to fire on a different set of cylinders than normal. Many creative and sensitive people turn to a drug like heroin to kill some sort of pain, whether physical or related to depression and anxiety. However, Dagher admitted that the danger of doing heroin makes it an unfortunate choice for anyone who tries to use it for creativity’s sake.
“It’s extremely dangerous. A single dose can kill you. And it’s easy to overdose,” Dagher said. This is especially true now that users who think they’re getting heroin might end up overdosing on fentanyl, which is an extremely strong opioid. Dealers are lacing heroin with fentanyl because the opioid is cheap and easy to obtain. In some cases, users don’t know they’re buying straight-up fentanyl; thinking it’s heroin, they take the same dose as usual, and they’re dead.
Music, in and of itself, does a great deal for the brain. When it comes to the efficacy of music therapy, in a study conducted by Italian researchers, participants with depressive symptoms who underwent musical interventions experienced a decrease in depression. Furthermore, another study showed that music therapy decreased pain for people recovering from surgery. The fact that playing music helps treat depression and pain indicates something about how music operates on the brain.
Music helps improve mood, and if it can help treat pain, that means it’s facilitating the release of pain-killing neurotransmitters. Drugs also cause the brain to release these types of neurotransmitters — albeit in a different way. However, it’s not hard to make a fairly logical association. Addictive personalities can easily succumb to excess. When a musician with an addictive personality is used to getting a buzz from playing music, they could turn to drugs to increase the buzz, so to speak.
It’s also worth noting the correlation between creative personality and affective mood disorders. A study on music and the brain notes that, among classical composers, at least 35 to 40 percent suffered from mood disorders, which include depression, manic-depression, and anxiety. If this type of statistic carries over to modern music creators, it’s easy to see why musicians turn to drugs as part of an effort to self-medicate.
Overall, there doesn’t seem to be any conclusive research pointing to musicians as being more drug-addled than other population groups. There haven’t been enough studies. Plus, how could you study this when evidence typically relies on self-reports? The margin of error is bound to be pretty big.
For most people it just seems to be a no-brainer. Of course musicians are druggies, that’s just part of the culture. I would say, don’t make any assumptions. As we’re becoming more aware, we’re learning we don’t need anything extra. Playing music already gives you the high you need.