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Music is the final touch to a setting.
Take any situation, put in music, and the ambience gets taken to another level. You notice this all the time in films. Music is used as a signal of impending danger, hope, or blissful tranquility.
Music alone can evoke powerful emotions. The reaction upon hearing a tune is almost instant. You might think back to a memorable time in your life or imagine a picturesque scenario.
It comes as little surprise that we turn to music as a quick way to boost our spirits. But what is it about upbeat music that makes us feel better? Do our minds and bodies change as a result from hearing certain songs?
To get the answer, let’s take a look at the science behind music and happiness.
How Does Happy Music Affect Us?
According to scientists at The Montreal Neurological Institute and Hospital at McGill University, listening to music really does have a physiological effect on our bodies. Their research has found that the pleasurable experience of listening to music releases dopamine, a “feel good” chemical that interacts with the pleasure and reward part of our brain.
Dopamine gets released in response to certain music that elicits “chills”. These chills are physical changes in the body including increased heart rate, breathing, and temperature. More enjoyable music produces a greater level of chills, indicating a highly emotional response.
We recognize the onset of chills when our body reacts: a shortness of breath, a shiver through our spine, or goosebumps forming. Even the anticipation of hearing emotional music alone is enough to produce this physical response.
Not all music has such an impact on us, though. Through brain imaging techniques, the research team found that dopamine was released in greater doses when listeners were exposed to pleasurable music rather than neutral music.
That last point leads to us to try and figure out what components make a happy song.
What Makes a Happy Song?
We normally think of music as subjective. One person may absolutely love a song or artist, while another feels the exact opposite. There are songs and musicians that we feel are overrated, while others slide under the radar undetected, sadly enough.
Uplifting songs, however, have a formula to them. Dr. Jacob Jolij, a neuroscientist at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands, has discovered what it is exactly about certain songs that boost our mood. He admits that music is highly personal, making it difficult to come up with a quantitative formula.
Still, there are some features about feel good songs that stick out:
- Tempo. The average tempo of a happy song is substantially higher than a typical pop song. A typical pop song is about 118 beats per minute, while a feel good song averages around 140 to 150 beats per minute.
- Music key. The music key of a song has a clear pattern. Feel good songs are overwhelmingly in a cheerful major key, rather than a gloomy minor key.
- Lyrics. It turns out that listeners do listen to and are impacted by the lyrics of a song. Uplifting songs center around cheerful events, such as going to the beach, attending a party with friends, or doing something with someone you care about. Surprisingly, lyrics that don’t make any sense also have the ability to cheer us up.
Keeping these factors in mind, Jolij decided to create a playlist with the most uplifting music. According to Jolij, he didn’t have much to do with the decision making process. Instead, he and his team took the most often mentioned song in each decade and compared it to the “uplifting song formula.”
It turns out, we really like listening to songs that make us happy.
Which Songs Make Us Happy?
Here are the top five songs that make us happy. All of them are upbeat and in a major key, which goes to show that there is a science to happiness and music:
1. Don’t Stop Me Now (1978) – Queen
2. Dancing Queen (1976) – Abba
3. Good Vibrations (1966) – The Beach Boys
4. Uptown Girl (1983) – Billy Joel
5. Eye of the Tiger (1982) – Survivor
Pattern or Coincidence?
You may have noticed that the songs are quite dated. It isn’t a coincidence. Jolij has found that songs from the 80s and before are more “feel good” than songs composed in later times.
However, just as music is personal, different people will have different lists of uplifting songs. The Montreal Neurological Institute and Hospital created their own list by taking songs from a number of genres.
Here are five additional songs based on their list – do any of these give you the “chills”?
1. Beethoven – Moonlight Sonata (Classic)
2. Cannonball Adderly – Work Song (Jazz)
3. Led Zeppelin – Moby Dick (Rock)
4. DJ Tiesto – Adagio for Strings (Techno)
5. Shore – Concerning Hobbits (Film Score from “The Fellowship of the Ring”)
Even though these songs are all supposedly dopamine-inducing, they each put us in different emotional states. One may motivate us to reach our goals, another puts us in the mood to dance, and yet another makes us want to lie down and relax.
Then there are moments we need no music at all, where we experience peace and quiet and believe it to be the sweetest sound of all.
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