Music has a unique power to affect the way people feel, and many use it to improve or change their mood, channel emotions, and for psychological support. The strong emotional impact of music derives from its profound physical and psychological effects. For example, listening to relaxing music often has a positive impact on the autonomic nervous system (which regulates many key bodily functions); by slowing your breathing, you regulate your heart rate and reduce blood pressure and muscle tension.
Listening to music also affects us on a deeper physiological level, as it has a strong impact on the endocrine system, which is responsible for the
of hormones. Music can stimulate the release of neurotransmitters that affect experiences of pleasure by increasing production of dopamine (the reward hormone), reducing cortisol levels (the stress hormone), and increasing salivary immunoglobulin A, an antibody that strengthens the immune system.
Of course, these benefits only happen if we listen to music that we like. Familiarity also helps, but even new music can elicit positive physical and physiological responses if it is similar to other music we like. Music we do not like can have a strong adverse effect on mood and well-being.
Individual differences mean that emotional reactions to songs differ based on people’s preferences and the associations they may have with the music. If we do not like the song (or it brings back negative memories), it will not make us happy, regardless of its quality.
Portable music listening devices and music streaming platforms have made it possible to choose from an unprecedented selection of music styles. Even people can now listen to their favorite music anytime, anywhere.
This means that music can be used to create a personal soundscape. This is very common when using public transport, where many passengers use headphones to create an individual sonic environment as a distraction from the less pleasant aspects of traveling in a crowded and noisy transport system.
In a recent survey, 71% of 2,000 participants reported that music had the greatest influence on their mood, and nearly 75% said they regularly listened to music to improve their mood. In response to these findings, I did a review of published studies to find out what musical characteristics tend to be present in “happy” songs.
Tonality, timbre, predictability, and surprise
First, we must remember that musical preferences and expectations are culturally dependent. For example, some Asian cultures have different associations between positive/negative emotions and major/minor notes, so “happy songs” for the Western world may not be interpreted as such globally.
Within Western cultures, there are certain components of popular music that are commonly linked to positive emotions. Music that is perceived as “happy” is usually written in a major key with a happy tone, with instruments with a happy timbre, such as trumpets or electric guitars.
“Happy” music usually adds the seventh note of the scale to the 3 main notes of the chord. This creates a brief feeling of tension – or a pleasant expectation – followed by relief or resolution, when the harmonic progression proceeds as our previous listening experience predicts.
For many people, listening to music is an immersive experience that can help take their minds off the problems of daily life. Active musical participation -whether singing or dancing- brings additional enjoyment.
A simple rhythm, based on 2-4 beats in a bar, adds to the danceability a song brings, while a binary structure —verse, chorus, verse, chorus— helps establish familiarity so the song quickly becomes in “singable”. People generally prefer music that is familiar to them or the one that becomes memorable quickly.
The most enjoyable songs are likely to be those that strike a satisfying balance between predictability and surprise, giving us an experience familiar enough to be enjoyable without being overly simplistic or overly predictable. Unexpected changes can intensify emotional responses. Listeners often get the most pleasure from music when they’re pretty sure what’s going to happen next, but then an unexpected chord progression or key change surprises them.
Based on previous experiences, listeners develop expectations of a piece of music. While familiar music tends to give them the most pleasure, it should contain enough “wow” elements to retain enough interest to create a pleasurable state.
This explains the use in many songs of a bridge or middle 8 (a section that is different from the verse and chorus). Although “happy songs” are usually written in a major key, they sometimes include a section in a minor key to add interest. The Beach Boys’ ‘Good Vibrations’, for example, begins with a verse in a minor key and then builds a strong emotional drive as it transitions to an upbeat major key for the chorus.
The speed of happiness
Faster music tends to induce more positive emotions than slower music. Previous research shows that music that is perceived as happy is generally played at a rate of between 140 and 150 beats per minute (BPM).
Among the songs that people say they use to improve their mood is Queen’s ‘Don’t Stop Me Now’, at 156 WPM. Tempo is a confusing variable because faster music increases arousal, but this may not always be associated with happiness. There may also be age-related differences in interpretation.
The truth is that music can have a profound effect on our sense of well-being. Just stick with James Brown’s ‘I Got You’ (or whatever it is that invites you to dance) and start feeling good.