How music makes us happy


We can all agree that music is something which makes us happy. Even when we’re sad, and we want something to cry to, the empathy it can make us feel isn’t far off the emotions we feel when we’re hearing a euphoric dance track in a club after one drink too many. But these songs don’t evoke emotions by sheer chance – as soon as people realised what elements of songs made people happy, you can be sure they reused them again and again. Here’s a look at some of the most common musical motifs designed to make us feel happy.

The four chord song

If you’re starting a pop song from scratch and you’re looking for a winner, you’ll want to pick the 1-5-6-4 chord sequence. It sounds awfully complex, but you know it much better than you think you do – as the Australian comedy band Axis of Awesome pointed out in their popular YouTube viral video. The four chord sequence is practically spelled out for us by Sir Macca in the piano opening of Let It Be, and we haven’t stopped using it since. Most people associate it with ‘Don’t Stop Believin’’, and its most recent golden moment was the chorus of Adele’s ‘Someone Like You’. It makes us happy because musically, it goes in a circle, so we know exactly where it’s going. Also, our ears know we’ve heard it many times before, so we relax into it, and the familiarity makes us happy. Simple.


The key change

This is probably the most commonly used, and clichéd example of a song trying to please the ears of the audience, though even Simon Cowell’s acts are now steering clear of it. They can be subtle (‘If I Could Turn Back Time’), or abrupt and shameless (‘Money, Money, Money’). But they’ll mostly be known as the moment Joe Bloggs wins The X Factor and after a moment where the music dims, it comes back in, greater and higher, with a choir, confetti and Dermot O’Leary screaming out his name. Yes, of all the things in music he’s accused of ruining, Cowell took one of our greatest little pleasures and whored it out to within an inch of its life. He’s not alone though. The other nominees for worst key change include Stevie Wonder on ‘I Just Called To Say I Love You’, and Beyonce on ‘Love On Top’ – the latter of whom, in an effort to show us just how high she can sing, takes on not one, but four key changes (so necessary). There is evidence that our love for the key change has not been completely destroyed – it’s still impossible to listen to Whitney’s ‘I Will Always Love You’, and not get goosebumps. You know, the bit that goes: BOOM – and I…


The looping chorus 

By its sheer definition, a chorus is something everyone can sing together. If a song’s going on, screw the verses – we want the chorus again, because we know it. Some choruses die down and come to a very final end – think of ‘Rolling In The Deep’. Other choruses are so satisfying to the ear, they could go on forever. They are designed to sound like they could loop back into themselves again once they’ve finished, and therefore could technically go on forever. Good examples are ‘I Wanna Dance With Somebody’, or ‘Call Me Maybe’. The combination of the beat and the bright violins makes your brain want to hear more of it, and the Jepsen delivers. Even just the one-line refrain from that Bucks Fizz work of genius ‘Making Your Mind Up’ – get that stuck in your head and it could go on forever. Alright, that might not make you happy, but you get the idea. When the chorus does stop, we want to hear it again.


Build and release

This comes largely from the house dance music of the early 90s, currently making a revival in the work of Calvin Harris. The best current example is the one that comes after the choruses in Rihanna’s ‘We Found Love’. The music is telling us it’s building up and it’s going to peak. It climaxes like a burst, and you’ll feel compelled to jump if you’re in a club. Stemming from a huge ecstacy scene, this style is reflecting how drug takers released energy in their dancing and response to the music. For the more Rihanna-inclined audiences, it’s more likely to reflect a release of pressure from stress and the daily grind. It sounds like summer – or a night out – both traditionally happy experiences. On a similar note, sometimes a build doesn’t culminate in an explosive release, sometimes it drops – like ‘Insomnia’ by Faithless – but it will largely provoke the same reaction.


The wordless refrain

It’s a combination of a refrain having a catchy tune and nonsensical words that please us, and make us want to sing along, thus pleasing us more. I guarantee that the part of ‘Walking On Sunshine’ you enjoy the most is the ‘Woah-oh’. Just me? These wordless hooks often bring the greatest happiness, but ironically often require the least amount of effort from songwriters. How long did Van Morrison toil over ‘Sha la la la la la la la la la la la la’? Seconds at least. Similarly, replace Van’s ‘sha’ and every ‘la’ with ‘na’, and you get One Direction’s ‘What Makes You Beautiful’ – currently making teenage girls experience unbeknownst emotions the world over. The more sensible music lovers among us will identify with the four minute outro of ‘Hey Jude’, or the ‘woah oh oh’ of Beyonce’s ‘Single Ladies’. But largely the latter, because you can do a hand dance with it. And if that doesn’t make you happy, nothing will.

This article originally appeared on SoSoGay online.


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