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What’s Your Favorite Song?

Here are surprising facts about how music makes you happier.

Key points

  • Music has the power to instantly relax and de-stress people.
  • Music has been proven effective for pain management.
  • Studies show that music can aid weight loss.
Papa Yaw/Pexels
Source: Papa Yaw/Pexels

"Ah music,” said Dumbledore, the headmaster of the wizarding school Hogwarts, wiping his eyes, “a magic beyond all we do here!’”

J. K. Rowling said she chose the name Dumbledore for her Harry Potter character because she imagined he was a blissfully happy wizard who spent all his time humming, and his name is based on the old British word for “bumblebee.”

As Dumbledore understood, music is magic. It holds tremendous sway over all of us. While it may not transform us into happy wizards, it will make us happier humans.

Listening to music can lift you up, energize you, calm you, make you weep with joy, put you to sleep, and wake you up. It is an amazing product of human intelligence and creativity; it embodies everything that makes us human: every emotion, every dream. Music taps into the whole brain and carries with it the power of the whole human experience. And it has always been so from our flutist ancient ancestors to our lullaby listening infants.

Music has been common to all cultures, in every part of the world, throughout all time. There is even some evidence in the form of primitive flutes found in ancient archeological sites that music may have preceded language. Music is a boon to mood and serves as a tool for productivity, whether we are revving up for a football game, celebrating at a wedding, or getting ready to weightlift at the gym.

Music’s potency

The astounding effect of music is its ability to instantly relax and de-stress us. Researchers at the University of Missouri found that listening to music when angry or depressed provides immediate relief.

It has also been found that patients who listened to music prior to an operation had lower stress levels than when taking anti-anxiety medication. Music prevents stress-related increases in heart rate, blood pressure, and cortisol levels prior to surgery. Another study revealed that music helped heart surgery patients to recover with significantly less morphine to manage pain. In effect, the study found that music and morphine can do the very same thing.

The scientific underpinnings of music

Music’s ability to produce a calming, euphoric effect is rooted in the biology of the brain. When a person listens to music, the whole brain is engaged. Areas dedicated to language, long-term memory, and short-term memory are stimulated. When we listen to music that we really like or that gives us chills, the neurochemical dopamine is released.

Music and morphine both introduce this “feel-good” neurotransmitter into your brain’s striatum. The striatum is an area that responds to rewarding stimuli like food and sex. This is likely why people list music in the top five things that are pleasurable.

The effect of music is well documented. It produces a chemical jolt on the brain. That means that since the whole brain is engaged, real changes can be made to your brain’s abilities and general balance. Choosing what music to listen to can impact how you feel. It can relax you for an operation, calm you on a long commute, prep you for the gym and get you ready for your day.

Lose Weight, the musical

It is probably no surprise that music helps with working out and losing weight. Who doesn’t grab their ear pods and crank up the sound when it’s time to exercise? Research shows that those who combine music with a good diet and exercise get more out of their efforts than those who only diet and exercise.

Songs with a rhythm between 120 and 140 beats per minute will make you push harder. Just think about how a polka or rock-and-roll song will get you moving. Music also distracts you from the physical pain of the exertion and inspires you to push yourself as hard as you can to achieve your goals. In fact, music can be used to help create a mood, virtually any mood.

Mood management

The next time you hear a song that gives you that shiver down your spine or an adrenaline rush, take a moment to reflect. In the book, Your Playlist Can Change Your Life: 10 Proven Ways Your Favorite Music Can Revolutionize Your Health, Memory, Organization, Alertness, and More, the authors make suggestions on how to apply music to your life in a practical way. Here’s a checklist for you to rank from 1 (not relaxed at all) to 5 (super relaxed).

  • How relaxed does this song make me feel?
  • How happy does this song make me feel?
  • How energized does this song make me feel?
  • How motivated and inspired does this song make me feel?
  • How focused do I feel when I listen to this song?

Once you have gathered answers about your own tastes and what drives you toward certain moods, you can assemble playlists for each occasion. Try to make several playlists for different goals.

Best music for the big happy

According to research, pop music is a good choice for increasing your happiness quotient, especially if the songs are familiar. Familiar songs give us an extra boost, as the dopamine infusion of happy music combines with the feel-good chemicals produced by pleasant memories. We all get a lift out of listening to the same song that played when we first learned to drive or had our first kiss. Music engages the memory sections of the brain quite powerfully.

Jack Lewis, a neuroscientist studying music’s effect on happiness, discovered that consonant, upbeat music in a major key is most effective. He compiled a list of "Songs By Science." The songs listed below are scientifically proven to make you feel chipper.

  • Prince — "Sexy Dancer"
  • BB King — "Let the Good Times Roll"
  • Beachboys — "Surfing USA"
  • Curtis Mayfield — "Victory"
  • Norman Jay remix
  • Bob Marley — "Three Little Birds"
  • Muddy Waters — "Got My Mojo Working"
  • Boney M — "Sunny"
  • The Darkness — "I Believe in a Thing Called Love"
  • Scissor Sisters — "Take Your Mama"
  • Outkast — "Hey Ya"
  • Future heads — "Acapella"
  • Harder Better Faster — "Daft Punk"
  • M People — "Moving on Up"
  • Tchaikovsky — "1812"

Want to make someone happy?

Here’s a trick to make others instantly happier. Ask your friends this simple question: What is a favorite song of yours?

We’ll go first:

Gina: "Beast of Burden" by the Rolling Stones can stop time for me because it evokes such wonderful memories.

Sanjiv: "Lara’s Theme" because I long ago took my girlfriend, now my wife Amita, to see the film Dr. Zhivago.

What’s yours?

As Bono said, “music can change the world because it can change people.” Is he right? We're betting that just thinking about music you love has put a smile on your face and made you happier.


The Two Most Important Days, Chopra/Vild

Temporal Changes in Mood Repair Through Music Consumption: Effects of Mood, Mood Salience, and Individual Differences, May 2007, Media Psychology 9(3):695-713

Physicans and surgery,