There Is A Secret Math Behind Feel-Good Music


Few things are as universal or basic to the human experience as music. Its power over the human mind is as mysterious as it is common. What’s responsible for the ability of music to so powerfully alter our emotions?  What gives certain configurations of sound the ability to so profoundly impact the human psyche  

Beats And The Brain  

Jacob Jolij, a Dutch neuroscientist and assistant professor in cognitive psychology and neuroscience at the University of Groningen, recently elaborated a mathematical formula whose purpose is to reveal what it is about certain musical patterns that cause us to experience positive emotions. The formula was developed with the help of a rigorous statistical analysis of 126 of the most popular “feel-good” songs from the last half century.  

The project, commissioned by British consumer electronics brand Alba, entailed looking at various tempos and keys associated with these popular songs. In the study, 2,013 English adults were surveyed on whether they use music to improve their mood, as well as which songs they preferred for this purpose. Alba’s goal is to isolate a mathematical formula in order to engineer the ultimate feel-good music.  

The Mathematics Of Music  

Joji found that positive lyrics and fast tempo played in a major key are all important components in a powerful feel-good song. The higher the “Feel Good Index (FGI),” which includes the song’s positive lyrics, the song’s key, and the song’s tempo in beats per minute, the greater the “feel-good” effect it can be predicted to have. While the average pop song has about 116 beats per minute, a quicker tempo of 150 beats per minute contributes to the production of the maximally happy song. According to MRI studies, fast-tempo songs produce involuntary activation in the motor areas of the brain, irresistibly influencing the human body to move in sync.   

Mystery Of The Major And The Minor  

Some elements of the psychology and neuroscience of music remain mysterious. For example, it is unclear why the major chord is associated with happy emotions and the minor chord is associated with negative feelings. While learned association likely has something to do with it, Jolij notes that it is one of music psychology’s major unsolved mysteries.  

Indeed, when exposed to Bartok’s “The Miraculous Mandarin” and Prokofiev’s “Battle on the Ice,” research participants reported anxiety and feelings of uneasiness. When their level of cigarette craving was rated after the experiment, they were found to crave a cigarette a great deal more, despite having recently had one. In another study, the low-energy song “Just My Imagination,” by The Temptations, lowered systolic blood pressure, improving the symptoms of road rage. This was not true, however, of Depeche Mode’s “Just Can’t Get Enough.”