Dr. Jack’s Musical Mood Boosters – Beat the January Blues with rara.com!

 Dr Jack Lewis

Hi there, welcome to round two of my scientific studies in music and the brain with rara.com. It’s certainly been an interesting week – I’ve been looking into how we can actually use music to beat the January blues and feel happier. Coupled with a cup of tea and perhaps a slice of cake it’s a sure-fire way to keep a smile on your face.

We all know that January can be dull and depressing. Days are short, nights are long, and festive cheer has long gone– making us feel lethargic and low.

To beat the blues I recommend listening to music.

It’s been proven that particular musical styles have the power to stimulate every brain area involved in generating emotion. This can activate pleasure pathways to produce a natural ‘high’, much like that created by good food and sex. Some songs just feel inherently ‘happy’.

My research into this field of neuroscience, music and mood has led me to indentify five key musical triggers that can help anyone feel happier, which I’ve used to compile the ultimate mood-boosting playlist. The playlist features an eclectic and unexpected range of artists from Robert Johnson, to The Beach Boys, and even Daft Punk and as with my previous ‘ergogenic’ playlist, it’s available for free on rara.com with the promo code HOLIDAY2012.

Here are my five top findings

1) Keep it simple with predictable, punchy songs – like early blues music.

Even though it is typically seen as a ‘sad’ genre, early blues has all hallmarks of music that can make you smile. ‘Let the Good Times Roll’ by undisputed King of the Blues, B.B. King is a good example. The simple, stripped-down style of his music with a punchy yet predictable brass and percussion rhythm get the brain’s reward pathways firing, whilst his unparalleled string-bending and vibrato technique made the guitar sing with an emotional, vocal quality sure to get the limbic system cranked up.

2) Connect with singers on an emotional level – try “a capella” tracks

Music is so ingrained into humans that it doesn’t need instruments to have an effect on us. When we hear emotion in a human voice our brains are tuned re-create some of this emotion within. This is fundamental to empathy. The harmonisation between several voices will activate the reward pathways, and can make you feel on top of the world. Indie rockers The Futureheads have produced an entirely “a cappella” album, “Rant”; it’s available on rara.com and highly recommended to get the brain tapping!

3) Revisit music from ‘moments of bliss’ to recreate that positive state of mind

Any song that reminds you of a time when you were blissfully happy has the power to put you right back in that particular emotional state of mind. One fMRI study specifically investigating how music triggers this kind of nostalgia identified a brain region which was activated both by events in the musical extract and the strength of the memories conjured up by that tune. Perhaps it’s music from an unforgettable summer music festival, your Wedding Day, or the opening track of a set from your favourite concert back in your younger days.

4) Music that gets your heart pumping and skin tingling casts your fears away

Any music that gets your heart pumping and your skin tingling – like the thrilling climax of Tchaicovsky’s 1812 Overture– can enable the brain to cast worries away. Such music does this by causing deactivation of the brain area that orchestrates the fear response – the amygdala – making us feel less anxious.

5) The ‘tight trousers’ factor:  high-pitched vocals create an instant mood boost

Singers often communicate the ‘happy’ emotion using the upper register of their voices and when this happiness rubs off on us, premotor brain areas that control our vocal muscles automatically become more active – which is why you can find yourself singing or humming along without even realising. Other songs in this vocal style include Mika ‘Grace Kelly’, Scissor Sisters ‘Comfortably Numb’ and most of Prince’s output to date!

This brings me to the end of my blog post and the end of my research into music and the brain (for now). I’ve really enjoyed this piece and have certainly learned a lot – I hope you have too.

Dr. Jack


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