Is It Worship Or Dopamine?

Why is it so difficult for Evangelicals to make the transition from evangelical “praise and worship” services to the more restrained and, dare I say it, dignified Reformed worship services? Any pastor of a Reformed church can tell stories about evangelicals, particularly females, who testify that they love the theology, piety, and practice but that they miss the contemporary praise music (CPM). For some, the need for that music and the affect it brings is so strong that, despite their intellectual connection to the Reformation, their affective connection to Evangelical CPM makes the shift to Reformed worship difficult—Reformed worship does not seem like worship to them. Why might that be?

I have been theorizing about this phenomenon since a friend mentioned that he wanted to attend a confessional Reformed congregation but said he was “hooked” on the CPM. He did eventually find his way to a Reformed congregation and is happily serving the Lord. Still, several people have testified to me over the years how difficult it was to make the transition. I made the transition in a different era. What we know today as “praise music” did not exist in the form it does now. It did not have quite the same affect or effect that CPM does now. According to my observations (and those of other pastors) it can take anywhere from six weeks to six months to detox (I use that term intentionally) from CPM. Reformed churches already face a number of challenges in, what is to us, “the New World” and now we face this challenge too.

My theory is that CPM might indeed create a sort of feedback loop of positive reinforcement. In this process, a congregant sings CPM songs for 25–45 minutes during the “praise and worship” portion of the service, a certain amount of dopamine is released creating a mild sensation of euphoria. That process is reinforced through daily use of CPM (via radio, Spotify, etc.) and repeated weekly in corporate worship services.

There is apparently some basis in science for thinking that there is a connection between music and a release of dopamine, creating a mild sense of euphoria. In 2011, Nature Neuroscience published a study in which researchers from McGill University in Montreal tested for and found evidence of dopamine release in response to music. The study used PET scans and MRIs to discover the link. The sample was very small (8 participants) who “had to experience ‘chills’ consistently, to the same piece of music, without diminishing on multiple listening or in different environments.” This response seems like the sort of phenomena people describe when they say that they “really worshiped.” When asked what they mean by that, they have said that they got chills. Since that time, another study (in 2018) seems to find a “causal role of dopamine in musical pleasure…”.

I think the past few years have taught us all to be a little cautious about invoking “science” and I readily admit that I am predisposed to believe that there is causal link between singing CPM and a dopamine release. Nevertheless, experience matters. Years ago, when I was a long-distance runner, I got a “runner’s high,” i.e., I experienced an unexpected release of endorphins during a run. I ran farther and more frequently thereafter, partly in search of that experience of endorphins, but it never returned. The description of the runner’s high also reminds me of the way some people describe the euphoria they experience while singing CPM: “…a short-lasting, deeply euphoric state following intense exercise.” I have not found the same sort of literature connecting endorphins to music.

Perhaps there is nothing to it, or perhaps there is a biological response to CPM? In the nineteenth century, the revivalists (e.g., Charles Finney et al.) developed a system for gaining converts. The use of “new measures,” e.g., what amounted to CPM in the 19th century (e.g., see ch. 13 of Finney’s Lectures on Revival) was a part of that system. The revivalists developed what they regarded as a scientific approach to revival. It was the age of factories and now the making of converts had been automated. The use of stirring music and instruments intended to affect the hearer became basic to the process.

Dear Reader, if you or a loved one is in transition from the Evangelical culture of praise music to something like historic Reformed worship, you might take into account the possible connection between CPM and euphoria and the challenges that withdrawing from CPM might pose. Give yourself time. Understand that euphoria, as pleasant as it be, is not worship. The identity of euphoria with worship is the stuff of another essay altogether (see the resources below). Pastors will want to be patient with newcomers from the Evangelical world, who may well be going through withdrawal and suffering from some of the symptoms. In time they will find that it can be sublime to sing God’s Word simply. Some years ago, our congregation sang Psalm 42 (I think it was) a cappella and at least some of us were moved to tears (even I seemed to have a case of seasonal allergies just then) by hearing God’s people sing God’s Word. Who knows what the Spirit of God might do through the due use of God’s ordained means?

©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.

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  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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18 comments

  1. I’ve become fully convinced that the effect of CPM comes in actually two forms:
    the effect of what the eyes see and what the ears hear.
    The eyes see people fully engaged (eyes closed/bodies swaying to the rythym) and the ears hear the beats (both up and down) and respond naturally. Next is your premise of the release of chemicals to associated stimuli.
    The music, strictly, produced by these songwriters is designed to do just that, put people in a particular frame of mind by way of chord arrangement and repetition.
    There was a particular CCM songwriter (whom I cannot remember) who emphasized this approach quite honestly. She had written a chord progression designed specifically to trick the brain into thinking that a particular chord was next, only to insert a chord that would produce a certain emotional response (usually with minor chords dropped in the correct place to great effect). This technique is typical in a lot of CPM and goes even deeper than that, I’m afraid.
    For example:
    I gave my son a quick lesson on how the chords (softly finger-picked slowly) on the guitar can produce in the hearer a certain type of emotion.
    Dm-F-C9-G-Gsus4-Am-Em-G-D
    His response was “wow, that sounds so sad.” Bingo! mission accomplished. This is the modus operandi of the likes of Hillsong/K-LOVE ect.
    I’d rather listen to a good ol’ blues song. Much more fun.
    Nick

    • Nick . I don’t disagree with anything you said . But could it possibly be so that some of these people are worshipping with a heart to glorify God . How can we from a biblical standpoint move this issue forward ?

  2. Doesn’t all musical accompaniment to some degree or other do the same thing? Doesn’t the pipe organ rattling the stained glass have a similar effect? It does on me. Possibly even a harmonic performance during a music special? The New Measures guys/gals certainly thought so, and they had never heard of dopamine.

    • Bill,

      Fair question. I do think all music is affective or intends to be. I’ve seen opera lovers weep and classical music lovers do the same. It’s interesting that pop music was used in at least one of the two studies (and perhaps both) that I saw (linked in the article above). I’ve never heard anyone testify to going through withdrawal from traditional (or even contemporary) Psalm or hymn tunes. There seems to be something particularly about CPM that creates the affect in hearers that causes them (if the theory holds) to become dependent upon it.

      I agree that the New Measures (as I cited above) intended to capitalize on the effect. One need not know about dopamine in order to capitalize on it.

  3. In addition to the special chord changes and repetitive lyrics, there’s the volume. It has to be loud, loud, LOUD. I understood the first two of these effects, but had difficulty with the third one because I detest anything loud – modified automobile exhaust systems, industrial equipment, jackhammers, chainsaws, and overly amplified music. But researching this on the Web a bit I discovered that for most people just the opposite seems to be true. Rock concerts performed in open stadiums with speakers cranked up so high that you can almost feel the pressure of the sound waves is apparently pleasurable for most people – makes them “feel good.” I don’t get it, but evidently it’s true.

    • My congregation amps up the sound on Sundays, along with the drums. I cannot sit through the “praise service” without ear plugs. It does not make me feel good. I long to sing the hymns of the faith and the psalter instead of contemporary music.

  4. I made the transition because I took the time, which was a along time, to learn the truth about music in the evangelical churches I had been attending. As I was educated and learned more about the “music” ,I could no longer submit to it as worshipping God. I found I could not tolerate it and it grieved my soul to much to keep attending these churches. I found all this evidence over a few years in various places and it all came together as the leaven which leavens the whole lump. By God’s grace He rescued me and my husband and brought us to the Reformed Church, never to look back.
    The said music is a deceitful tool to bring emotions to the soul which masquerade as love to God. It is a dangerous path as it deceives believers into a false sense of love etc etc towards God. It is used to almost hypnotize the hearers and one can easily see this while in attendance for the worshippers are being influenced not just by words and biblical text but by the music and it’s beat mostly. It is really the rock and roll….pagan in origin.
    This is my experience and what I was rescued from

    • Hi Lauren,

      Thanks for this. Your experience resonates with what I’ve seen. I do doubt, however, the “pagan” roots of rock and roll. The history of genre is fairly well known. It has roots in black gospel music, blues, old-time country (e.g., Hank Williams), and boogie-woogie piano and a lot of that is arguably derived or influenced by gospel. I’m not saying that rock and roll is gospel but (contra the old fundamentalist narrative) it’s not the result of “pagan” (usually code for African) drumbeats.

  5. Excellent article. Many a young person is convinced that they know they are Christians by their….emotion. This musical idolatry is an important part of their ritual.

    Very tragic, but God will lose none of his own, and will pull them inexorably to himself, even through these musical shenanigans.

  6. I think the same type of transition is required for those who are moving from operating in the so called charismatic gifts to relying on Gods Word for guidance and assurance

    • Hi Steve,

      There are arguably canonical hymns/songs in Scripture. The early Reformed recognized the “Canticles” (e.g, Luke 1:46-55; 1:67-79; 2:14; 2:29-32) but I wrote “God’s Word” intentionally. If Scripture is sufficient for anything, it is sufficient for public worship. This is the view I argued in Recovering the Reformed Confession (Linked in the resources of the post). I’ve never argued for exclusive Psalmody although should the church decide to sing only the Psalms I would happily submit. I have argued against non-canonical hymnody.

  7. Hi Dr. Clark, I mention this in class, but perhaps a clarification on what the role of dopamine is in the brain and the body would be helpful as to why this phenomenon occurs. Dr. Andrew Huberman and Dr. Anna Lembke have done a good job of explain the role of dopamine as a chemical which is strongly associated with our sense of motivation. As we obtain goods (whether pleasure or other) more easily and quickly our dopamine threshold lowers (diminishing returns) and hence our motivation to seek those things out in avenues more rigorous and more rewarding drops. This is the usual pattern of addiction. I wonder if this has anything to do with the rate of decline in the mainline denominations of the USA?

  8. I’ve learned to analyze music and my response to it from reading Roger Scruton. This has been very helpful. He calls the addiction “kitsch” or cheap. It is easy (more passive, less engagement) and it’s constant repetition impacts us . “Three chords and an idiom…”

    I was reminded of this recently hearing “Carol of the Bells” without being able to get a parody out of my mind.

    “Cheap” meaning little effort, little thoughtfulness and a very quick emotional response. (Dopamine).

  9. I was raised in an agnostic home, listening to classical orchestral and choral music which is, to say the least, complex in its beauty. One of my favorite works was (still is) Berlioz’ Requiem, his opus 5. Long before the Lord called me, I knew something powerful had caused mere humans to compose such works.
    CPM, with its formulas, thumping rhythms, and excessive volume, is barely-disguised rock and roll. R&R has perverted, cheapened and vernacularized worship music, just as it has country and traditional music.
    I’d suggest that the use of CPM is another effort to “make God more accessible” – in other words, more like we mortals. Can’t have anything that scares the young folk away, or causes people to dwell on the fearsome majesty of the Lord, now can we.

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