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Why Music Makes us Feel so Damn Good

Updated: Sep 14, 2023

We all have certain songs that just us feel good. You know... the ones that make us sing out loud or tap our toes to the beat. Music resonates at such a deep level in humans that it helps us emote and feel pleasure in ways we might not even understand.

Our favorite melodies release feel-good hormones which have a positive, immediate impact on our mental state. Fast tempos can psychologically and physiologically energize us. This is because the brain waves automatically sync up with the music. If the music has a slower pulse, then that slows down the brain waves and that affects other autonomic parts of your nervous system.

The benefits of music as a painkiller, a stress reliever, a mood booster, and aid for processing grief is well-documented in the literature. Doctors and therapists use it to help patients regain memories, stimulate new neural connections, improve active attention, and process trauma.

The reason we have a such a deep connection to music because it is hardwired in our brains.

In fact, music is so rooted in human nature that a Harvard Study had participants listen to a 14-second sound clip and found that people around the globe could differentiate which songs were lullabies, dancing songs, or healing songs regardless of the songs’ cultural origin.  

“Music evokes emotion, and emotion can bring with it memory. … It brings back the feeling of life when nothing else can.” – Oliver Sacks

Music Impacts More than Mood

When sound waves enter the ear canal, they are transformed into miniature electric currents and then transmitted to your brain. Different parts of the brain decode the rhythm, pitch, timbre, and emotion of the musical sound. Once the brain interprets the sounds, they stimulate more parts of the brain than any other single human function. In addition to activating the auditory cortex and memory regions, music also activates the motor system which is why you feel like tapping your toe or dancing when you hear music.

It's no secret that music affects mood, but we are learning more about how it affects our neurochemistry, cognition and behavior. Listening to music we enjoy increases the production of dopamine (the reward/pleasure chemical) and oxytocin (the "cuddle drug" that makes us feel connection and belonging). It also reduces the production of cortisol and other stress hormones.

The brain works better in a positive state than in a negative or neutral state. When we listen to music we enjoy, we're primed for greater mental acuity.

Research confirms that upbeat or uplifting music can enhance attention and memory and calming music such as Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” has a positive effect on focus and concentration. Multiple other studies have demonstrated that when music is played during physical tasks that require endurance, participants report feeling more motivated, having increased coordination, and pushing themselves further. It's why the right music gives us a better workout.

A 2014 report on office-based experiments revealed that more than 85% of participants produced more accurate work when listening to music and 81% completed their work more quickly when music was playing.

Back in the 1980s, marketing professor Ronald E. Milliman explored how the tempo of music influences customer behavior. In his landmark 1982 paper, “Using Background Music to Affect the Behavior of Supermarket Shoppers,” Milliman revealed that the tempo of the background music in a store can influence how fast people walk through the store as well as sales volume. Uptempo music makes people move more quickly through the store and reduces how much they spend. Downtempo music makes people move more slowly and they buy more. Milliman found that, on average, sales volume was 38% higher on days when stores played slow background music.

Restaurants that put profit above the dining experience may play music with a fast tempo to turn tables more quickly. However, uptempo music also suppresses appetite. Appetite is in part a function of the parasympathetic nervous system. Loud, fast music makes people eat more quickly because it activates the sympathetic nervous system (the ‘fight-or-flight' response), which opposes the parasympathetic system and thereby diminishes appetite resulting in fewer appetizers, desserts and drinks. In the restaurant business, getting diners in and out as quickly as possible doesn't always mean more revenue.

“Music is a language that doesn’t speak in particular words. It speaks in emotions, and if it’s in the bones, it’s in the bones.” - Keith Richards


The Most "Feel-Good" Song (According to Science)

Most of us don’t need science to tell us that certain songs immediately make us feel good. However, cognitive neuroscientist, Dr. Jacob Jolij, wanted a quantifiable explanation as to why some songs make us feel better than others.  In fact, he made it his quest to identify the most feel good song of all time.

He started by identifying the songs that respondents listed as those that make them ‘feel good’, and then looked for patterns in key and tempo. After factoring in additional variables, such as season in which the song was released, genre, lyrical theme, and overall emotionality of the lyrics, he discovered the formula.  Ready?

So get to the list already!  Okay. According to Dr Jolij’s research,  here are the top ten feel good songs(and maybe the new playlist for the break room?):

10.  Walking on Sunshine (Katrina & the Waves)

9.   I Will Survive (Gloria Gaynor)

8.   Livin’ on a Prayer (Jon Bon Jovi)

7.   Girls Just Wanna Have Fun (Cyndi Lauper)

6.   I’m a Believer (The Monkeys)

5.   Eye of the Tiger (Survivor)

4.   Uptown Girl (Billy Joel)

3.   Good Vibrations (The Beach Boys)

2.   Dancing Queen (Abba)

And, (drumroll please) the number 1 feel good song of all time is...

revealed in the video below. So, go on…  take a few minutes to feel good…. in the name of science. And, share your own top “feel good” song in the comments.  I’d love to know which tune moves you!


Music and Memory

That music conjures up vivid memories is a phenomenon well known to brain researchers. It can trigger intense recollections from years past — for many, more strongly than other senses — and provoke strong emotions from those earlier experiences. When we listen to a piece of music from years ago, we seem to travel back to that moment. We can feel everything as if we were there.

Memory is divided into two distinct types: implicit memory and explicit memory. Explicit memory is a deliberate, conscious remembering of something we experienced in the past like learning math processes or a foreign language - things that must be consciously brought into awareness. These memories fade unless we consciously remember them.

Implicit memories are our unconscious and automatic memories like playing a musical instrument or recalling the words to a song. A large part of memory takes place in the unconscious mind. Many times, an event and a song are connected through implicit memory. When a piece of music is paired with a very emotional event, it can be an effective cue to bring back the strong emotion that was felt at that moment.


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