Study Reveals How Music Influences Feelings

A European research study published in Current Biology in November 2019 has uncovered new clues on the link between music and what makes people feel good about it. The study tracked the responses of participants who were played samples of chord progressions from popular songs. Here’s a look at the findings.

Research Parameters

The study was conducted by researchers in Germany, Norway, Denmark and the UK, using machine learning technology. The project analyzed 80,000 chord changes played in 745 hit songs that charted between 1958 and 1991 on the Billboard “Hot 100.”

All 39 volunteers were adults asked to rate how pleasurable a particular chord change felt from hearing the hook. Songs were presented without lyrics or melodies in the mix, with an emphasis on chord progression. The study also used brain imaging to detect which areas of the brain experienced pleasure from the music selections.

Suprising Results

Two key findings from the study were that participants got more pleasure out of expected chord changes as well as surprised by unexpected chord progressions. Interestingly, the same number of people found the sounds to be pleasant for either familiar or unfamiliar chord progressions.

Lead researcher from the Germany-based Max Planck Institute of Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences Vincent Cheung stated that people “derive pleasure from a piece of music just by how sounds are ordered over time.” In other words, chord changes, which are combinations of usually 3 or more notes blended together to create a fuller and more harmonic sound, play a role in musical taste depending on the sequence of different chords.

“Understanding how music activates our pleasure system in the brain,” Cheung remarked, “could explain why listening to music might help us feel better when we are feeling blue.” He suggested on CNN that people enjoy a good balance between familiar and unexpected sounding musical patterns. Furthermore, he believes pleasure is associated with expectency.

The study essentially emphasized the uncertainty of listener predictions. Songs used in the study included “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” by The Beatles, “Red, Red Wine” (a Neil Diamond cover) by UB40 and “Country Roads” by James Taylor. The researchers did not allude to other studies which have consistently pointed to how music fans respond more favorably to familiar songs rather than songs they’ve never heard before.

AI Technology for Composers

These findings may help improve machine learning algorithms for composing music or forecasting trends. A recent Fortune article reported that in the next decade 20-30 percent of top 40 music will partly come from AI technology.

That doesn’t mean the entire musical landscape will be that way, since “Top 40” is really just the name of a radio format and doesn’t always reflect musical tastes or industry directions. Garth Brooks, for example, sold the most albums in the 90s yet only had one top ten hit on the pop charts. Many country artists embrace tradtional methods of creating music.

The emergence of AI technology in musical creation processes also doesn’t necessarily mean machines are replacing humans in the music field. Many songwriters use the software for musical ideas that can generate interesting musical innovations.

Music for Pleasure in the Workplace
This study may inspire businesses to experiment with background music to see if it enhances productivity. Employers should at least acknowledge that music is actually good for your health both on a physical and cerebral level. When people feel good they are more vibrant and productive. This sensation also can create greater loyalty toward employers.


Only 39 participants were surveyed, making it a very small study and just an indicator that requires more studies to determine consistency. Repeated studies of participants in the thousands are considered the most reliable studies in science.
At the same time this study opens up discussions for inspiring further curiosity about the elements of music that make people feel good. It’s valuable information for playing background music in the workplace.