The connection between daydreaming and music

This is a speculative post. I want to say that up front, because I’m unusual among daydreamers: music isn’t, and never has been, part of my daydreaming experience. In fact, I’ve often used music to pull me out of a daydream. When I need to stop daydreaming and focus on real life, listening to music for a few minutes helps to reset my mind. For me, focussing on music – really listening to it – is grounding rather than dissociating.

But for most daydreamers, music is a critical part of the daydreaming experience. Music is needed to set the scene, create the right mood, and add an extra dimension to the daydream. In fact, music is so commonly associated with daydreaming that it features in two questions in the MDS-16, the scale used to assess maladaptive daydreaming disorder. The MDS-16 distinguishes between using music to initiate a daydream (“To what extent does music activate your daydreaming?”) and using music during the daydream (“To what extent is your daydreaming dependent on continued listening to music?”).

The second question highlights the importance of music during the daydream. When used in this way, music fulfils a similar function to pacing – it’s something we do while we’re daydreaming to enhance the immersive state and maintain our disconnection from reality. But what about the first question, which asks whether music activates your daydreaming? That makes it sound like a trigger, something that pushes us into a daydream in a similar way to boredom or loneliness.

But most daydreaming triggers are things we want to escape from, and music doesn’t fit that category. So what do we mean when we say music is a trigger? Given how common it is for daydreamers to listen to music while daydreaming, I wonder whether the act of putting in the earbuds, selecting the song, turning up the volume, is all part of the ritual that initiates the daydream.

If, over many years, you’ve consistently used music to enhance your daydreaming, your brain has come to associate music with daydreaming. You’ve probably heard of Pavlov’s dog experiment, in which dogs began to salivate on hearing a sound that they’d come to associate with food. It’s called classical conditioning. Your brain has associated listening to music with daydreaming, so now when you hear music, particularly if it’s one of your daydreaming tracks, you automatically start daydreaming.

For most of us, daydreaming is an intensely enjoyable and rewarding experience. Even if you’re struggling with maladaptive daydreaming disorder and are frustrated by the amount of time daydreaming steals from you, or you’re intensely self-critical for not being able to control your daydreaming, there’s a good chance that the daydreaming itself gives you a rush of positive emotions while you’re doing it. And those positive emotions serve as a reward which reinforces the behaviour: as soon as you hear the music, your brain anticipates the reward and you experience that anticipation in the form of an urge to daydream.

This association between stimulus (music) and reward (daydreaming) could work for just about anything. Although music isn’t a trigger for me, I’ve always daydreamed last thing at night before I go to sleep. The act of turning out the light and snuggling down under the duvet now acts as a trigger for me. I start daydreaming without even consciously thinking about it.

But if any stimulus can become associated with daydreaming, why is music such a common trigger that it merits two mentions in the MDS-16? I doubt anyone knows for sure, but I wonder if it has something to do with music’s capacity to generate emotion. Both music and daydreaming can be used to change our emotional state. One of the main reasons we daydream is to escape from negative emotions. Music can be used in the same way. So it seems logical that music can enhance daydreaming, and daydreaming can enhance the experience of listening to music. And it’s therefore easy to see how the two could go together.

As I’ve said, my daydreaming isn’t activated or maintained by music, so if you use music to daydream, I’d love to know whether you agree with what I’ve written here. Let me know in the comments section how you see the connection between music and daydreaming. And if you don’t daydream to music, let me know that too – I’d like to know I’m not alone!  

2 thoughts on “The connection between daydreaming and music

  1. I daydream to handle everyday’s blows and life’s general frustrations. My daydreams are not sci-fi or fantastic worlds, I’m the other typical daydreamer who uses celebrities as substitutes for people we need to change or lack completely. For a couple of decades now my celebrities of choice have been singers. Dead singers mostly. My daydream world has to do with music. But I don’t need music to daydream and I rarely use music for my daydreaming.
    For me it’s two different things. Having grown up in the videoclips era, the idea of blending images to music is absolutely embedded in me, but somehow I haven’t taken that into my daydreaming. I do every now and then engage myself in listening to music (headphones) to do that kind of daydreaming, Images+music. But it’s always fast-paced music, so it’s always fast-paced action. And that is so far from my reality that I’m not even comfortable in my own head doing it. It never lasts long. I’m actually embarrassed of doing it. It’s funny that I don’t feel that way about daydreaming with dead celebrities who wouldn’t give me the time of day should we meet, but that’s the way it is.
    I do more of that kind of daydreaming when I go out, because I always go out with headphones, music all the way. But the thing is, I’ve never consider that anything other than the natural way to listen to music! I’m a maladaptive daydreamer, so the “videoclip daydreaming” feels like kids play to me. It’s when I turn off the music that the real, wonderful, useful daydreaming can begin.
    By the way, I wanted to note that what I do use sometimes (I don’t need it, but it’s a nice help) is Ambience sounds. A landscape of sound that serves as background. I use Audacity to make them myself. For example: A muffled old radio broadcast, the sounds of someone cooking, rain, wind, etc. Anything can be recreated once you find the audio files, as easy as in youtube.
    I appreciate knowing there are other MaDDers who don’t use music, I keep fearing that by the time the medical community starts taking this seriously they’re gonna include music as a “must” to be considered a MaDDer!

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    1. That’s so interesting. Thanks for explaining your experience. Fascinating that you daydream about singers, and therefore must be daydreaming about music, and yet music itself still isn’t something you need to daydream. I think it just underlines that even though most daydreamers do use music, it isn’t an integral part of the daydreaming experience. I’ve always felt that it can’t be, because I’m quite sure there were maladaptive daydreamers long before we invented music, or at least long before music became the constant background that it is in our modern lives. And, yes, I agree that there’s a danger that people will start to think that if you don’t daydream to music then you’re not a “proper” maladaptive daydreamer.

      Interesting also that some of the singers in your daydreams are dead in real life. That’s something else I’ve heard people struggle with – keeping a character alive after the person they based them on dies. It’s another thing I can’t talk about from experience, as my characters are fictional and not based on real people, alive or dead. But I’ve always thought that the character in your head is quite separate from the real person you based them on, and therefore it shouldn’t really matter if the real person is dead. But I wonder if maybe that’s why you’re not embarrassed by it? The real person is never going to know you based a character on them, and can never have an opinion about it. Of course, that’s true for most daydreams about living celebrities as well, but I guess it’s a bit more definite when they’re dead.

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