What Type Of Music Makes People Happiest?
    By Warren Davies | October 11th 2010 08:12 AM | 19 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
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    I am Warren Davies, a 28 year old student of psychology. I am male, and have been my whole life. I became interested in psychology many years ago...

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    Music has a remarkable ability to conjure up strong emotions in people.  It can cheer you up, bring you down, and in the case of boybands, cause severe anger and disgust.  And it’s old; some scientists believe music even predates language, this based on flute-like instruments dug up in France, believed to be over 50,000 years old.  But music is a bit of an evolutionary puzzle.  It’s hard to think of any survival value it may have brought us; a niche it filled better than any other human faculty.  So why do we love music so much?  What’s going in inside our skulls when we hear music we enjoy?  What music makes the best pick-me-up?

    Happy music = Music you like

    Starting with the latter question, there are a few ways to figure out scientifically what happiness-inducing music might be.  The first would be to give people a CD containing music of different varieties, and measure their happiness before and after a week-long listening binge.  This hasn’t been done yet, to my knowledge.  The second way would be to hook people up to devices that measure their physiological state, and play them different types of music to see what happens.  A few studies like this have been done: here’s an example.

    Music-lovers were given a PET scan while they listened to one of their favourite pieces of music; something that gave them the “chills,” or “shivers-down-the-spine.”  One participant chose Barber’s Adagio, which, rather freakishly, my itunes just started playing as I write this.  Fair enough, I happen to be listening to The Most Relaxing Classical Album of All Time (classical music is the only type that doesn’t distract me from writing), but still…

    Back on track.  When you listen to music, it’s processed in brain areas associated with, among other things; language, memory (short- and long-term), and emotion.  But when that music is something you really like, something that gives you chills, the brain areas involved in pleasure and reward light up too. (1)

    These reward circuits turn on when you eat, have sex, or do pretty much anything that’s naturally rewarding.  They are also activated directly by many drugs, which is partly why these drugs are so addictive.  In this study, brain activity when the music was played was similar to that of euphoria and pleasant emotions.  The areas the music activated are crammed with opioid receptors (eg., endorphins).  In fact, another study found that blocking these opioid receptors with a drug called naloxone reduces the chills people get from music. (2) (edit: It turns out this conclusion may have been premature due to flaws in this study - see the comment by Mark Riggle below.  Thanks Mark for brining this to my attention).

    But this is definitely all happening through music to your own taste – when the participants listened to ‘control’ music, that they didn’t choose themselves, there was less brain activity in these areas and fewer reports of chills.  So using music to bring pleasure and happiness requires a knowledge of your own personal tastes.

    Music and Happiness

    These internal goings on are all very interesting, but “music you like makes you happy” doesn’t really satisfy as an answer.  It’s obvious: of course the music we like makes us happy.  That’s why we like it.

    What we’re really asking is, what type of music, on average, brings out the most positive emotion in people.  Accounting for taste is easy – you just average it out with large enough sample sizes, and look at the trends in the data.  This is how psychology studies are typically done, drowning out out individual differences with big sample sizes.

    So, what’s the utilitarian approach to happiness music?  If you had a group of people, and you want to make the group a little happier overall using music, what’s your best bet?

    Well, some studies compared different aspects of music with emotion and physiological responses.  Although there were some connections, for example, up-tempo music in a major key evoked similar responses to positive emotions, and consonant music was rated more pleasant than dissonant (3), as one paper pointed out, “this [preference for consonance] presumably indicates that listeners have internalized the tonal rules of music in their culture and react to violations of these rules.” (2, p383)

    Evidence of an innate preference for music?

    So for now at least, we might be stuck with the subjectivity answer.  There is some evidence that our musical tastes may be innate, for example, 4 month-old babies seem to prefer consonant to dissonant music (4), but the evidence doesn’t seem conclusive.  What I really wanted, but didn’t find, was a study comparing the effects of different genres on various emotions.  Does jazz flute make you happy?  Does emo make you depressed?  Do boybands make you want to puke?  Big questions, but apparently, scientists have not yet considered them a valuable addition to the knowledge base.

    Music and Memories

    As mentioned earlier, listening to music activates brain areas associated with memory.  I’m sure you have some songs that remind you of the good times – a holiday, a particular person, a bar you used to like going to.  Memories work by association, and when you hear these songs the brain areas associated with the memory turn on too, sometimes bringing back feelings along with the memories.

    Positive reminiscence appears to be good for us.  It’s a strange thing to consider, but people who spend 10 minutes or so per day reminiscing about good memories of the past, became more satisfied with their life in the present.  In some studies participants were asked to use items to aid their reminiscence; trinkets from the past that ‘brought back memories’.  I don’t see a reason that music couldn’t do the same thing.

    Music and People

    Building social relationships is among the biggest – if not the biggest – thing people can do to become happier.  So by extension, music will make people happier if it’s part of some social event. This will include live music, playing music in a band, or anything that involves other people as well as music.

    What kind of music can make you happier?

    • More than any specific type of music, music that’s to your own taste is most likely to bring pleasant emotions

    • Songs that bring back happy memories may also work, if you reminisce while listening

    • Live music will also work, if you take your friends along with you

    • Failing all the above; if you’ve been exposed to western culture: consonant, up-tempo music in a major key, is the best choice

    • References:

    (1) Blood, A. J.&Zatorre, R. J. (2001). Intensely pleasurable responses to music correlate with activity in brain regions implicated in reward and emotion. PNAS, 98(20), 11818-11823

    (2) Goldstein, A. (1980). Thrills in response to music and other stimuli. Physiological Psychology, 8, 126 –129.

    (3) Blood, A. J., Zatorre, R. J., Bermudez, P.&Evans, A. C. (1999). Emotional responses to pleasant and unpleasant music correlate with activity in paralimbic brain regions. Nature neuroscience, 2 (4), 382-387.

    (4) Trainor, L. J.,&Heinmiller, B. M. (1998). The development of evaluative responses to music: Infants prefer to listen to consonance over dissonance. Infant Behavior&Development, 21, 799–806.

    Image credit:

    Rockin’ Baby by Beaukiss Steve


    Before addressing the main theme of this article, I would like to ask about
    one of their favourite pieces of music; something that gave them the “chills,” or “shivers-down-the-spine.” 
    To one like myself, recently arrived at pensionable ago, that sounds like something scary.  Is this a generational divide in idiomatic usage?

    My thoughts on the main subject, though, will require a lot of composting before they can be spread on the plot of Science Two Zero.
    Robert H. Olley / Quondam Physics Department / University of Reading / England
    I think it is just usage.  Music that thrills and music that chills seem different to me - "Phantom of the Opera" minor key stuff versus the more upbeat western style he discusses above.    

    But maybe it is generational or even an age thing.    When I was young I played primarily 'classical' guitar (encompassing the varied styles that are colloquially called classical today) and made fun of the more outrageous electric guitar work in vogue at the time, but today I can hear one of those 'hair metal' bands on the radio and think, 'that guy is pretty good.'

    Warren Davies

    They probably chose the "chills" option because it was more likely to get a reading in the scanner, after they'd gone to the expense of getting someone in it (as opposed to saying "bring some music you like").  "Physiological response" is probably a more accurate way of putting it.
    Although that thrills/chills distinction makes sense to me, as far as I can tell, the papers treat thrills and chills the same.  Some even refer to it as music that thrills/chills.  Here's one paper's definition:

    Thrills/Chills: This interesting phenomenon has been described as an “archaic physiological response of short duration to aesthetic (and other) stimuli, [usually consisting of] piloerection on the back of the neck, [and] shivers down the spine that can spread to arms and other parts of the body” (Konecni, 2005, p. 36). The response can be reported by the participants with a high degree of reliability (Konecni et al., 2007).

    Maybe a chill is these researchers' idea of a thrill?

    And there's also a distinction between that, and aesthetic awe, which might come about from music that provokes joy or melancholy.

    So you're a guitarist then Hank?  I used to be, got pretty good at copying other people for a while but could never get the hang of 'playing', if you know what I mean.
    It is not a generational problem concerning the notion of music 'chills'. The problem is that not everyone experiences them. The Goldstein article (referenced above) found that more than 90% of music students experience music chills, but that maybe only 60% of the general population may have experienced music chills. It is one of those experiences that if you have them, you know it and they are a very distinctive feeling. Often the people who do not have them think the people who do have them are crazy. In all the experiments that look at music chills, only people that have music chills are chosen as subjects. Furthermore, the chill feeling does have very definite physiological responses.

    That's a pretty old question from ancient times. I should say scales are also important to make people happy like Dorian and Lydian scales.
    But those are both jazz scales and fairly recent - music in the east has almost nothing similar to music in the west yet it still makes people happy.
    Warren Davies
    I should too, fits in with the consonance thing also. I like this discussion of scales:
    That baby is cute!  (or should I say 'cool'?)
    Robert H. Olley / Quondam Physics Department / University of Reading / England
    I always miss the evolutionary perspective in these discussions of music. Music goes through the ears, the auditory system. A growling predator snapping your bones is what associates with dissonant sounds. Stress free voicing is relatively harmonious. This formed our language (meaning = association), leads to mom's harmonic sounds to sooth her baby, your boss growling down your neck, and all that. Dissonances came in small amounts to make the music already known a little more interesting, thereby triggering reward circuits further by satisfying human curiosity. So, dissonances are not at all busting this evolutionary perspective. My pre-frontal cortex is a thrill seeking ADHD one; I need dissonant, bass heavy, minor, sus7 or stranger, fast break beat to make me happy. It would scare the hell out of me if I were to climb down from the trees hearing music for the first time. But given the whole picture, I think I more or less understand how this kind of air pressure excitations correlate with my dopamine levels.
    Warren Davies
    "_ A growling predator snapping your bones is what associates with dissonant sounds. Stress free voicing is relatively harmonious."

    Good points, nice breakdown!  

    Are you also into sky-diving, bungee jumping and things like that?  Because I'm not, and I'm also not into dissonant, bass heavy music. 
    I would be surprised to hear that many ADHD sufferers seek such short term excitations as bungee jumping. Promiscuity/risky sexual behavior in general, gambling, stock market trading/risky financial plays in general, criminal acts/anything forbidden like illicit drugs, all that leads to much more sustained stress (constantly having to hide something) and excitement that in turn leads to the CNS wakefulness otherwise only available with proper medication (e.g. amphetamine).
    Problem in "In fact, another study found that blocking these opioid receptors with a drug called naloxone reduces the chills people get from music. (2)".
    This statement, while widespread, is actually wrong. It implies that endorphins somehow directly mediate music chills and that proposition turns out to not be what was shown in the experiment. In fact, a close analysis of the experiment would conclude the opposite, that endorphins are not part of the chill response. A poster presentation at the last International Conference on Music Perception an Cognition 11 details this. The abstract follows, and if anyone wants the full paper, email markriggle at alumni dot. rice dot. edu.

    Are Musical Chills Really Caused by Endogenous Opioids? Examining Goldstein's 1980 Results

    An often cited conclusion that musical chills are mediated by endogenous opioids (endorphins) is based on an
    experiment that showed the opioid antagonist naloxone reduced the chills rate of music in some subjects. However, we
    find some experimental problems with its methods, results and conclusion. Dr. Goldstein's experiment with musical
    chills and naloxone used 10 subjects, all music chill responders, and found that 3 had significant chill reduction related
    to naloxone. He did not provide the result showing if the other 7 had any reduction at all, and the assumption would be
    that they had no reduction in chills. Naloxone is a highly competitive opioid antagonist, thus this result is odd if music
    chills are from endorphins. An experimental confound, not known in 1980, is endogenous opioids are partly
    responsible for natural relief from chronic pain. If the three subjects who showed chill reduction had chronic pain
    relieved by endorphins, then Naloxone would have restored the pain. The pain increase, which need not be perceptible,
    could influence the ability to experience chills. If 7 of 10 subjects had no reduction in chills, then the opposite
    conclusion, that chills do not arise from endorphins, could be made. We conclude the results of the 1980 music chills
    and Naloxone experiment should not be used to claim that musical chills are mediated by endogenous opioids.

    It's interesting stuff so if you can craft a general purpose article we'll publish it and readers can then get the broader story.
    Hi Hank,

    I have a three page conference proceeding paper for it which I would love to have posted here. Send me email and I will forward it to you. The copyright is mine even though it was in the conference proceedings (and the proceedings are pretty much not available).
    markriggle at alumni dot rice dot edu. (It probably will not be long before the bots decipher this)


    Mark Riggle
    I posted my article.  Find it at:

    Warren Davies
    I wasn't aware of that - many thanks for leaving a comment!
    Warren I find it an impossible question to answer! is too closely connected to how I feel at the time, and where I am, and what I'm doing..... I agree that some of the language is very modern, and will maybe put off some older people, but I'm a young-at-heart, so not really put off, but certainly have given it more thought than just responding to the youth language Aitch
    Strangely, I find myself defending boy bands.
    I am 40+. Boy bands make me happy. I don't mean, as in, the quality of the composition, musicality of the singers, musicians, tones, etc affect me in a positive way.
    The songs are written to appeal to the teenager in all of us (women, only, maybe?) They sing pretty, look pretty, with pretty lyrics about how much I am loved by them. It doesn't even matter what language they sing.
    What is not to like?

    I assume a large number of men once made the same argument about Britney Spears.  If the quality is less important but look and musical hook is, they get written that way for a reason.  The Spice Girls were practically invented from whole cloth with limited singing ability, some dancing and the right look - but the songs could almost have been written by a computer based on what people would like.

    This professor took it even farther - Psychologist Says He Has Created The Ultimate David Bowie Song (And It Will Help Bowie Live Longer) - and it's pretty darn good.

    Not every pleasure has to be meaningful.