Medical Mysteries of MusicMusic News

The Science is In: MP3s Make You “Less Happy”

That headline looks like clickbait, but it actually points to some real science.

In his book, This is Your Brain on Music, neuroscientist David Levitin speaks to how the brain reacts to pleasurable music by producing dopamine, the body’s feel-good hormone. Listening to a great song gives the body the same great jolt as a bump of cocaine or an orgasm, leading Levitin to point out that the brain really is wired for sex, drugs and rock’n’roll.

The brain, however, is confused by MP3s. When it hears this kind of audio, it spends a few milliseconds trying to fill in the audio that the MP3 encoding algorithm strips out. Our ears may not notice that something is missing, but our brain can’t be fool. This millisecond delay results in a slight disruption in the production of dopamine. Therefore, the body doesn’t feel the same pleasure as it would listening to an analogue sound or even an uncompress .WAV file. This could also explain why so many people seem to prefer the sound of vinyl.

Now we have this from The Vinyl Factory:

Titled The Effects of MP3 Compression on Perceived Emotional Characteristics in Musical Instruments, the study compared compressed sounds over ten emotional categories at several bit rates.

The results showed that MP3 compression strengthened neutral and negative emotional characteristics (things like Shy, Scary, Sad) and weakened positive emotional ones (like Happy, Romantic, Calm). Interestingly, the characteristic Anger was relatively unaffected.

The study suggested that the background “growl” added by MP3 compression was the source behind the negative trend.

If you’ve had arguments about the sonic merits of MP3s, you can add this to your arsenal. You’re also perfectly justified in spending more money on vinyl and to hope that High-Res Audio catches on.


Alan Cross

is an internationally known broadcaster, interviewer, writer, consultant, blogger and speaker. In his 40+ years in the music business, Alan has interviewed the biggest names in rock, from David Bowie and U2 to Pearl Jam and the Foo Fighters. He’s also known as a musicologist and documentarian through programs like The Ongoing History of New Music.

Alan Cross has 37921 posts and counting. See all posts by Alan Cross

2 thoughts on “The Science is In: MP3s Make You “Less Happy”

  • If you click through to the study, you’ll see that the bitrates that skewed toward neutral or negative emotional responses were extremely low 56kbit and especially 32kbit. Even back in the days of collecting the crappiest quality Mp3’s most were encoded at 128kbit or higher, which is above the threshold at which the study claims the listeners can’t tell the difference between original and compressed. Given that iTunes songs are encoded at 256kbit, and Spotify streams at 320kbit, I’d call the claim that MP3’s make you sad dubious and unfounded by this study.

    The better claim would be that poor quality sound resulting from extreme compression makes you sad. The study would support this, as would my own anecdotal experience.

  • In the AES study they used less than 100 kbps and 56 kbps on average.

    ANY lossless compression will make you less happy if you are stupid enough to use such heavy data compression. However who exactly is so stupid nowadays? Even streaming sites do not go that low.


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