We live in a world of opposing tensions. People and things can't be neatly organized into a few simple categories — wild and wooly diversity is the name of the game — but we still need ways to help us simplify that chaos.
The need to bring order to the chaos is what might be behind the need to single out "the world's happiest song." Why? Because someone decided it could be objectively measured.
That someone is Jacob Jolij, an experimental psychologist at the University of Groningen in The Netherlands. He was tapped by a Alba, a British electronics brand, to take data they had collected in a survey of 2,000 British and Irish people about their favorite songs for improving mood. He had experimented with music as a way to manipulate moods before, so this was definitely in his wheelhouse.
But before we dig into the how and why, submerse yourself in the more chaotic element: the song itself. Turn up the volume as Freddie Mercury and the other members of Queen belt out the winning tune, "Don't Stop Me Now":
Hunting for patterns
"Basically, they asked me whether I could find a general pattern in the songs that respondents reported as ‘feel good songs' and whether they could use this pattern to come up with a 'formula.' I found this an interesting challenge, so I said yes. One week later I received the data," wrote Jolij on his blog.
Being a scientist, he came up with a formula, and while he admits that music in general — and certainly people's appreciation of it — is subjective, he also thought there were definable features of songs that have already been proven to cause an emotional response (including mode and tempo). Taking that into consideration, he thought that song features could indeed be expressed in numbers.
Rating = 60 + (0.00165 * BPM – 120)^2 + (4.376 * Major) + 0.78 * nChords – (Major * nChords)
And to help break that down:
-BPM is beats per minute (tempo)
-Major is 1 if the song is in a major key and 0 if the song is in a minor key
-nChords is the number of chords in the song (including modulations etc.)
He fed the list of songs that the survey respondents had already identified as "feel good songs" into the formula.
The nuts and bolts of a great song
"The formula basically says we generally like songs with a tempo that deviates from the average pop song tempo, that are in a major key, and are a bit more complex than 3 chord songs, UNLESS the song is in a major key," Jolji writes.
So, using the combination of the chosen feel-good songs from the survey (so, no, this isn't a purely objective look at all the songs in the world, since survey respondents already narrowed down the list), Jolij determined that Queen's "Don't Stop Me Now" was the happiest song. Next was that wedding-reception favorite, "Dancing Queen" by Abba, and in third place the Beach Boys' "Good Vibrations."
Jolij writes that there's plenty more to understand about music and mood: "... the truly interesting questions are still open. Is this model predictive, that is, can it be used by composers to write specific feel good songs? What is so special about the major key that it makes us feel good? Why do fast songs work so well?"
He'll be continuing his research into some of these questions and, I'm guessing, having a good time doing it.
Before you go, have a dose of feel-good yourself and listen to Abba's "Dancing Queen":