It’s hard to listen to Katrina and the Waves's “Walking on Sunshine” without feeling a little like you’re actually walking on sunshine. And ABBA’s “Dancing Queen” is bound to turn you into one for roughly 3.5 minutes. According to Baltimore radio station Mix 106.5, this isn’t surprising—those tunes are two of the most uplifting songs ever to grace the airwaves.
Several years ago, UK-based electronica band Alba surveyed an unknown number of English and Irish citizens to find out which songs make them especially happy. After compiling a list of the most popular answers, the band sent it to Dutch neuroscientist Jacob Jolij and asked him to figure out why those songs were such effective mood-boosters. Though Jolij explained on his website that each person’s musical taste is “highly personal and strongly depends on social context and personal associations”—and that the endeavor was “data crunching,” rather than “hardcore science”—there were enough quantifiable factors to draw certain conclusions. In studying the chosen songs, Jolij realized their average tempo was between 140 and 150 beats per minute, which is a couple dozen beats faster than the average pop song. And while a few songs were played in a minor key, the majority of them were in a major one. Jolij also identified trends in the lyrics. Most, he said, were either about “positive events” like parties or romantic experiences, or they simply “did not make sense at all.”
Jolij combined these metrics into a formula that can be used to compare the feel-good value of different songs. Again, he stressed that it’s more about illustrating the concept and less about mathematical perfection—and since he used Alba’s original list of songs to create the formula, those songs scored predictably high. That said, when he asked Dutch listeners to rate their favorite feel-good songs in 2016, their answers reinforced his earlier conclusions about fast tempos and major keys. There were also a number of repeats from the first experiment, including Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now,” The Beach Boys’s “Good Vibrations,” and The Monkees’s “I’m a Believer” [PDF].
Listen to the original top 10 happiest songs below, and learn more about Jolij’s study here.