One of the main reasons why music brings happiness is because of drugs, natural ones! The pure physical enjoyment of listening to music that we really like leads to dopamine being released in the brain, this is a feel-good natural drug that brings us pleasure. It’s quite an addictive drug, which could explain how people get so into music.
The other major natural drug produced by listening to music is melotonin, this is created when we are listening to soothing music and helps us to relax.
From a purely physical point of view, the types of music that seem to make people in western society happiest are uptempo, consonant types of music. And slow music, particularly if in a minor key or dissonant, can make us feel sad.
Music can also have a negative impact in other ways. People will obviously not get enjoyment from the music they don’t like, but it goes further than that and many tend to react very strongly to music they don’t like – certain types of music boy bands, country music, rap – are particular favourites for people’s anger. So when they are put in a situation where they are forced to listen to such music, in a shopping precinct or when a child or neighbour play the music at high volume for instance, they can find it extremely annoying.
But the most extreme example of the negative impact of music can be found in it’s surprising use as a torture weapon. It was regularly used for torture purposes by American troops in Iraq and at Guantanamo Bay. The music was played constantly at very loud volumes and inmates have spoken how this non-stop assault on their eardrums eventually pushed them towards losing their minds. The music used was often metal music, such as Metallica, although bizarrely children’s music, such as Barney the Dinosaur was also often a weapon of choice.
One of the major reasons why music has such an impact on us is in the memories that it evokes. It can take us back to a certain place and remind us of great times. Fast energetic music generally seems particularly good for this, because it makes us want to dance or reminds us of when we had good times at a party or at a wedding.
On the flip side however those memories may not always be good and may remind us of bad times or lost loves.
Lyrics, if there are any, can also play a role in how happy songs makes us feel. As would seem logical, happy positive lyrics generally make us feel happy and positive, and sad negative lyrics have the opposite effect. But things are complicated by the fact that often people want to listen to sad negative lyrics because they are feeling sad. Hearing music that backs up the way they are thinking often seems to make them contented in a different kind of way, wallowing in misery. This seems to something that certain teenagers in particular seem to like doing. But it may not be that healthy, constantly listening to depressing music would seem unlikely to help happiness levels in the long term.
It’s not always possible to pigeon-hole music into depressing or happy. For instance bands such as The Smiths mix humorous and downbeat lyrics. And other bands have downbeat caustic lyrics but lovely sweet instrumentation and melodies, The Beautiful South for example.
A pure comedy record is a very different thing all together and usually filed under novelty records. As a result most bands don’t attempt them these days, Tenacious D, Jack Black’s band is an exception and worth checking out.
The final way that music can make people happy is from the social interaction it can lead to. This can be anything from going to see gigs with friends, going to festivals or playing music oneself as part of a band. Social interaction is always one of the key routes to finding happiness.
So does music make people happy? Well, not always, but it generally seems to make people more happy than unhappy.
Listen here to 50 of the best happiest songs of all time.