Sounds Interesting

Music for pleasure … on International Happiness Day

gonzalo baeza

Thursday March 20 is the United Nations International Day of Happiness, and so I thought a short post would be in order to help you to select some appropriate music for the day.

Numerous researchers have identified musical characteristics that make music feel “happy”. These rules are not perfect, but if you follow them, your odds of ending the day with a smile on your face will be much higher than if you simply trust the DJ on the radio.

An ascending melodic line is generally regarded as happier than a descending one. A ¾ (i.e., waltz) time signature tends to be more relaxed and carefree than does 4/4 or 2/4 time. And a smooth, even rhythm (think bossa nova here) is more conducive to an unimpeded flow of playfulness than is a rhythm that sounds jerky or disjointed.

As long ago as the 1930s, research was even able to rank order the characteristics that music should have in order to be happy. Major mode is the most important, followed by (in descending order of importance) high pitches, simple harmonies, flowing rhythm and fast, unvarying tempo.

It also helps if the music is loud, has bright timbres (i.e., strings not tubas), and staccato articulation and fast attack times (think “da-da-da-da” rather than “deeeeer-deeeeer-deeeeer-deeeeer”). Moreover, if you want to avoid accidentally listening to something that will make you sad then avoid (in descending order of importance) minor mode, low pitch, slow tempo, complex harmony and firm, rigid rhythms.

If you’re not too interested in music theory then another approach allows you to skip all this jargon and instead just focus on two criteria. Namely how much you like the music and how arousing you find it. Music that is happy is usually that which you really, really like and which is arousing (or more simply, which feels like it is giving you a physical jolt).

It is important that the music fulfils both above criteria though. If you really, really like it but don’t find it arousing then it will simply leave you supremely relaxed rather than happy per se. And if it is arousing but you don’t like it then you will probably just find it really unsettling and unnerving.

There are two really important factors I haven’t covered here at all. First of all, some music will be happy because it has special associations just for you.

Most people, for example, would regard goth classics like Bela Lugosi’s Dead by English gothic rick band Bauhaus as pretty maudlin stuff, but if it is the music you danced to on your wedding day then (god help you and) you will probably still find it quite uplifting.

Second, from a research perspective, we still have very little idea about how lyrics affect your emotional response to music. Interestingly though, people tend to be quite bad at interpreting lyrics - one study found that 36% of teenagers at the time thought that Physical by Olivia Newton-John was an attempt to get listeners to exercise more. As such, even explicitly happy lyrics might not have the desired effect on listeners, so try to avoid placing all your hopes on the lyrics mentioning the word “smile” a lot.

Have a good day! :)