Emotional Music


We know that there’s always that song that makes us smile, take us back to an exact moment, or bring us to tears… Music can have powerful effects on our emotions and with this in mind, we worked alongside Jacob Jolij, Professor in Cognitive Psychology and Neuroscience at the University of Groningen, to reveal some of the songs that trigger the clearest emotional responses.

  1. Happiness – Katy Perry, Birthday

Happy songs are up-tempo, have strong rhythm, positive lyrics, and are typically in a major key. The up-tempo rhythm of Katy Perry’s Birthday will encourage active movement and dopamine release, which is good for your mood.

Furthermore some research suggests that the major key unconsciously reminds you of a falling pitch – a feature which in both human and animal vocalisations asserts dominance and confidence.

  1. Sadness – OneRepublic, I Need

Sad songs have the opposing features of happy songs: they are slower and in a minor key – with the lyrics generally more negative.

The minor key present in OneRepublic’s I Need unconsciously reminds the human mind of a rising pitch, which is associated with defeat and uncertainty.

  1. Optimism – American Authors, Best Day of My Life

Optimism is what psychologists call a complex emotion – it is not ‘built in’ our system by nature, but it is an emotion we learn to experience over time.

Optimistic feelings require happiness, so optimistic songs will share many features with happy songs: major key, upbeat. However lyrics – such as those in American Authors’ Best Day of My Life – are more important here as they provide the additional context to build optimism rather than purely improving mood.

  1. Anger – David Guetta, Bad

Anger is a basic emotion. It is negative, and as such associated with songs in a minor key. However, as opposed to sadness, anger is what we call an approach-emotion: it involves movement, a dimension anger shares with happiness.

Combine these two and you’ve got a recipe for songs that may help in channelling our angry feelings: up-tempo songs with a strong rhythm, in a minor key, such as David Guetta’s Bad.

  1. Overcoming fear – Coldplay, Magic

Fear is a negative emotion, characterised by a stress response that prepares you for a ‘fight-or-flight’ reaction.

In the modern age, we often experience the same stress responses in situations where the ‘fight or flight’ response isn’t beneficial – such as an interview or presentation. In order to overcome fear, the very first thing you need to do is to minimise your stress response, followed by managing your internal thoughts. Music that can help you to overcome fear therefore needs to be slow, relaxing, but have major chords to evoke positive feelings, and lyrics that deal with your negative thoughts, such as Coldplay’s Magic.

  1. Excitement – Avicii, Wake Me Up

The hormones present in the body when we are described as being ‘excited’ – such as adrenalin and endorphins – mean that excited people crave music that is positive, usually in a major key, yet more up-tempo and with a stronger beat than your typical ‘happy’ song.

And when you’re dancing with excitement to Avicii’s Wake Me Up, the lyrics in excited songs aren’t as important as they are to other moods such as anger or nostalgia.

  1. Nostalgia – John Legend, All of Me

John Legend’s All of Me is an example of a song destined to be a nostalgic hit.

For many the sentimental lyrics will remind them of somebody special, improving the probability of linking the song to other senses – such as sights or smells – meaning the iconic 2014 hit All of Me is a reliable track to provoke nostalgia in listeners for years to come.

Take a listen to the top seven emotion-inducing tracks here and check out more of our mood-focused playlists by surfing the ‘Genres and Moods’ section in the Browse feature.