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Why music makes you feel good: The science behind your favourite playlist

A melody can evoke powerful emotions and has the strength to resonate with us both physically and mentally, often giving people a shiver down their spine and sometimes even reducing people to tears. So why do we experience such sentimental responses to certain songs, and can we use our playlists to communicate emotions to others or alter our moods?

That tingly goosebump feeling you may have felt while listening to a pleasingly put together composition is often referred to as a ‘frisson’ or ‘aesthetic chill.’ Music psychologists have been exploring this phenomenon and the emotional effects of music for years, however the subject is largely unsettled. We do know, however, that some songs can trigger a release of dopamine. A spike in this chemical is usually associated with pleasure, perhaps explaining why our favourite songs can help to make us feel good.

Music can affect us in lots of different ways, communal singing has even been proven to reduce stress, while the release of oxytocin, otherwise known as the cuddle hormone, helps us to connect with each other (no wonder we seem to bond with strangers while screaming Mr. Brightside at the end of a big night.)

For many of us, music is used as a tool to enhance our experience of the everyday. From listening to a motivational playlist on the commute to work, to cooking dinner to a newly discovered band, listening to our favourite songs can help make mundane tasks a little more interesting. Even when we’re not actively choosing to listen to music, we’re often surrounded by small symphonies - bird song, radio jingles, movie soundtracks, we’re rarely away from it.

Whether it’s the thrill of an unexpected chord change or the uncomfortable feeling we get when a melody is unresolved, there’s no doubt music can have an impact on how we feel. We spoke with Mira Manga, musician, writer and label manager for ECC Records, to hear her thoughts.

Mira explains: “When you’re watching movies or reality T.V shows there’s a few tracks they’ll often play to accent emotions. If you watch the same scenes with the mute button on, they seem quite pedestrian, but add a swell of strings to that same moment and it will create more feeling.” This technique is used frequently by composers and the music helps to underscore what is happening. While the narrative and action of the film may tell us what characters are doing, the soundtrack tells us what they are feeling.

Mira laughs, commenting on a well known T.V talent show she says: “Whenever they start playing Coldplay you know that a contestant is either going home or is going to achieve greatness.” The Sound Before Picture rule gives us an idea of what is going to happen next.

Playlists are the perfect example of how we can create an atmosphere through certain songs, and music streaming services have made it easier than ever for us to choose a ‘mood’. Want some belters for in the shower? There’s a playlist for that. Learning to walk like a badass? Granted it’s obscure, but there’s one for that too.

We plug in, select a ‘mood’ and get an instant hit of musical medication. Mira describes our use of music as a “life supplement”: “If you’re in a moment, be that relaxing, or you need to feel energised, music is like another layer of reality that you can bring in to extend that mood.”

Social situations like dinner parties are often made more comfortable by background music, and let’s face it, nothing is more awkward than trying to crunch a crisp quietly in the deafening silence. Music is an extremely effective method of communication. It moves beyond language barriers, connecting people through emotion and shared experience. Sharing your favourite musicians is an intimate act, and it’s rare that we share those guilty pleasure songs with people we barely know. Our taste in music is personal to us, but it can also bring people together and prompt conversation. In Mira’s words it is “one of the colours in our personalities and makeup.”

Whether it’s for inspiration, nostalgia or you simply want to listen to a super emo song and have a good cry, music can be an incredible tool for our wellbeing. It can transport us to places that no other medium can, and even has the power to dull pain by triggering the release of natural painkillers in the brain - suddenly Bob Marley’s lyric: “One good thing about music is when it hits you, you feel no pain” means so much more.

Music is ingrained in our very souls and some evidence even suggests that humans used it to communicate before the invention of language. So no matter what genre or artists we’re into, our connection to it is indisputable.

If you’re looking for some album inspo, you’ll find loads of fresh picks on the Lush website, from Lush Spa music for chill times, to music from around the world.

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