Scientific research has shown that music – and these five songs in particular – can have an enormous effect on our emotional state.
Whenever I’m feeling gloomy with the state of the world, I don’t think about the arrivals gate at Heathrow airport (sorry, Richard Curtis). Instead, I reach for my headphones, take myself for a walk and tune into my carefully crafted playlist of ‘songs to make you smile’: it’s never too long before the likes of Carla Thomas, Queen and – don’t you dare judge me – ABBA have me smiling again.
And, as it turns out, I’m onto something: listening to music really can have a noticeable effect on our moods. For as long as sound has existed, melodies have been tied to memories, allowing humans to access a different mental or emotional space than the one they were in before.
Why? Studies have shown that music, particularly ‘highly emotional’ music, activates subcortical nuclei known to be important in reward, motivation and emotion. This, in turn, causes the release of the neurotransmitter dopamine in the striatum (an ancient part of the brain found in other vertebrates as well) which is “known to respond to naturally rewarding stimuli like food and sex and which is artificially targeted by drugs like cocaine and amphetamine”.
Or, to put it more simply, music truly does make our brains sing.
According to researchers, the release of dopamine in the body triggers all of those physical reactions that we mean when we say a piece of music has given us “the chills”. Think a change in heart rate, breathing and, in very special cases, temperature (people with enhanced emotional ability are even thought to experience actual, physical goosebumps when listening to music).
And now, thanks to a number of brain imaging techniques, we know which five songs in particular are most likely to create “musical chills” in listeners, trigger dopamine release and, as a result, boost feelings of happiness, too.
Check it out…
Clair de Lune – Debussy
Adagio for Strings – Barber
Piano Sonata No. 17 in D Minor – Beethoven
First Breath after Coma – Explosions in the Sky
Adagio for Strings – Tiesto
Of course, these aren’t the only songs making headlines with their mood-boosting properties. In fact, a recent study uncovered the most relaxing song of all time, too.
Dr. David Lewis-Hodgson of Mindlab International, who conducted the study, asked participants to solve difficult puzzles as quickly as possible while connected to sensors. The puzzles induced a certain level of stress, and participants listened to different songs while researchers measured brain activity as well as physiological states that included heart rate, blood pressure, and rate of breathing.
The top song produced the greatest state of relaxation – slowing heart rate, reducing blood pressure and lowering levels of the stress hormone cortisol – was Weightless. This was followed closely by Airstream’s Electra, DJ Shah’s Mellomaniac (Chill Out Mix), Enya’s Watermark and Coldplay’s Strawberry Swing.
However, before you banish all unhappy music from your Spotify playlist, it’s worth noting that having a good old cry to a sad song is actually good for your emotional health and can make you feel better afterwards.
In fact, producing tears actually gives us a form of pleasure (who knew?).
“Psychophysiological experiment showed that self-reported chills increased electrodermal activity and subjective arousal, whereas tears produced slow respiration during heartbeat acceleration, although both chills and tears induced pleasure and deep breathing,” said researchers.
“A song that induced chills was perceived as being both happy and sad whereas a song that induced tears was perceived as sad. And results show that tears involve pleasure from sadness and that they are psychophysiologically calming.”