We all know intuitively that music makes us feel good. Research proves that when you listen to music you like, your brain releases Dopamine, a ‘feel-good’ neurotransmitter. Not only that, a 2022 research study found that listening to music leads to a clinically significant boost to mental health – improving wellbeing and quality of life.
You can listen to the uplifting suggestions we were sent in our playlist and find out more about some of the reasons behind the selections below.
SPECIAL OCCASIONS AND SHARED MEMORIES
One role of the brain structure, the hippocampus, is to help us remember songs, so that we can recognise our favourite melodies in just a few seconds. Some musical triggers are very personal. We don’t always know why some musical memories are stronger than others.
Music can instantly take us back to big celebrations, long journeys and silly jokes. Ghostbusters by Ray Parker Jr. was Jenny’s favourite song as a child – something that’s followed her into adulthood: ‘it has become a running theme that my friends send me jokes and memes about it and buy me gifts based on it. I put it on the jukebox or request that DJs play it for me at any given opportunity! As soon as the music kicks in I just smile.’
For Stuart, Smash It Up by The Damned ‘reminds me of being 16, carefree and with my whole life ahead of me!’, while for Ali it’s Hanson’s iconic MMMbop which ‘reminds me of my last summer of childhood’. All My Friends by LCD Soundsystem takes one of our contributors back to 2008 when they found themselves back in their hometown after university, surrounded by old friends: ‘This coincided with the global financial crisis – finding work in the arts sector with little experience meant we all became involved in grass roots arts, theatre and music in Glasgow. For me this song is about the happiness found in creativity, about resilience, love, friendship and hope. (And house parties, obviously!)’.
Sometimes one moment is indelibly marked by a song, one specific memory that ties it to a person: Firestarter by The Prodigy makes Francesca smile because it ‘reminds me of watching my son-in-law leaping about the kitchen.’ Waterloo by ABBA makes Harry ‘remember dancing with my mum at my wedding’ which ‘remains a great memory’. For one contributor, the Hot 8 Brass Band’s cover of Sexual Healing makes them smile because they and their partner ‘walked down the aisle to it after we were married!’
Occasionally those memories are an amalgamation of many associations, which then become the soundtrack to a feeling. One contributor chose Right Here, Right Now by Fatboy Slim – ‘This song used to play before every game at the Arsenal, whenever I hear it I am thrown back to 1999 and I see a montage of all the years me and my dad have been going to the games.’ It’s Sultans of Swing by Dire Straits that puts a smile on Matt’s face: ‘My brother always put it on every CD he burned when we first learned how to do it, always makes me think of family.’
For Francesca, Louis Armstrong’s What A Wonderful World means ‘Sunday dinner time, mum cooking with the radio on, family favourites’ and for one contributor, I Feel Good by Beres Hammond ‘reminds me of being back in the Caribbean surrounded by family’. When Naomi hears Let the Great Big World Keep Turning, ‘It always makes me think of my dad who would sing it to me and my siblings when we were tiny (and he’d murder it on the piano but we loved his renditions nonetheless!).’
There were more than a few songs chosen because they came with memories of children. Paulina said that Lucecita by Sofia Macchi ‘reminds me of my baby and how much I love her’ while it’s Get Lucky by Daft Punk for another contributor: ‘it was number 1 when my baby girl was born and she brought the joy in my heart.’ Call Me Maybe by Carly Rae Jepsen makes Idza smile because ‘for some reason it was on our automatic family playlist when my first child was born and whenever I hear it, I remember the excitement of starting a new phase of my life.’
Michael Jackson’s Beat It reminds Helen of her son, aged 3, it ‘makes me smile because he used to go and get his table chair and piano and put it in front of the tv to sing and play along’ and Sarah shared that Mr. Blue Sky by the Electric Light Orchestra brings her joy: ‘I used to sing it to my son when he was first born – “Hey you with the pretty face, welcome to the human race!”’
FEEL THE MUSIC AND DANCE
Did you know that up-tempo music stimulates our nervous system? It elevates our heart rate, blood pressure and temperature, and prepares the body for activity. Those toe-tapping tunes literally affect our bodies.
Man! I Feel Like A Woman! by Shania Twain makes Simon want to dance and for another contributor it’s Let Your Love Flow by The Bellamy Brothers. Others said that It’s Only A Paper Moon gets ‘feet tapping’ and Crazy Crazy Nights by KISS requires a ‘bop along’ while Sarvat said that Never Too Much by Luther Vandross is ‘a song you can’t sit down to.’ Deejay chose Music Sounds Better With You by Stardust because it’s a ‘timeless classic, from the moment you hear that iconic guitar loop to the moment you hear those crisp vocals, I can’t help but sing along and move. It always lifts my mood.’
In contrast, slower music reduces stress hormones, relaxes muscles, and boosts emotions. Annie said that ‘no matter what my mood is, [Take Me To Church by Hozier] makes me dance and sing my heart out! It’s my gym, housework and party go-to song.’
Breathing, heart rate and even our sweat glands are affected when we have an emotional response to music. Kat submitted Touch The Sky by Julie Fowlis because the ‘song feels like the musical version of running through woodlands and climbing a mountain! It makes me feel free and joyous and never fails to provoke a smile’ while Leona ‘can’t listen to [Hawaiian Roller Coaster Ride] without my mood just lifting. There’s really no place I’d rather be than on a surfboard out at sea!’ For Sophie, Mixtape: Time Out by Stray Kids ‘oozes pure fun and instantly cheers me up. It is so uplifting.’
Alexa chose get him back! by Olivia Rodrigo: ‘I love it because it is a very upbeat song that makes me smile even in a Monday morning when I have to go to school.’ Another contributor thinks that There Will Never Be Another Tonight by Bryan Adams is ‘is the ultimate feel-good song when you’re getting ready to go out, whatever the occasion.’ Charlotte went with Movin’ Right Along by Fozzie and Kermit because ‘it’s so incredibly happy-sounding, complete with funny noises that you can’t help sing along with.’
MUSIC TO OUR EARS
Emotions are processed and triggered by a part of the brain called the amygdala and it’s the this that causes us to feel that shiver down the spine and goosebumps when listening to music. Music helps us reflect and manage our emotions and we can use it to cheer ourselves up.
Iman chose Fight Song by Rachel Platten because it ‘was the song that got me through my GCSEs, I was struggling in Year 10 and this song helped my power through Year 11 when I was feeling down and needed some hope.’ Mandira heard Wavin’ Flag during the 2012 Olympics and ‘felt so uplifted by the positive vibes, it has remained an anthem for my whole family ever since.’ For Rhona, One Day Like This by Elbow is a reminder that ‘there can always be amazing days ahead.’
Do Your Thing by Basement Jaxx puts a smile on Jasper’s face because it’s an ‘amazing lovely song, about being yourself and feeling happy in your own skin‘, which was what Cathy said about Perfect to Me by Anne-Marie: it ‘helps me feel ok about me!’
Leo picked Unwritten by Natasha Bedingfield because ‘this is always a song that inspires positivity and proactivity.’ David selected While You See A Chance by Steve Winwood and said that ‘It’s not just a great song to listen to, it’s a song that inspired me to finally take control of my destiny and immensely change my life for the better.’
If you would like to find out more about how music shapes our lives, visit Turn It Up: The power of music at the Science Museum from 19 October 2023.