If you're happy and you know it, listen to Lily. If not, it's The Verve

Chief Reporter,Terry Kirby
Monday 11 December 2006 01:00

"One good thing about music," sang the late Bob Marley, "when it hits you, you feel no pain." But the great reggae superstar may have been wrong; new scientific research suggests pop music can create measurable physical reactions of sadness, happiness and exhilaration.

According to the research, the saddest of 10 sad songs is The Verve's mournful classic "The Drugs Don't Work", the most exhilarating song is Blur's Britpop anthem "Song 2" and the happiest, newcomer Lily Allen's "LDN".

The songs were rated by researchers according to heart rate, respiratory response and skin temperature among volunteers who listened to the music in a controlled environment. Dr Harry Witchel, the scientist who conducted the research said: "We wanted to determine how people actually responded physically to music, as opposed to how they said they felt about it. It is the difference, for example, between groaning when a familiar record comes on, but finding you are tapping your feet to it."

The Verve song topped a selection of 10 other sad songs, which included Robbie William's "Angels", Elton John's "Sorry Seems to be the Hardest Word" and Sinead O'Connor's "Nothing Compares to U".

Although nominally about recreational drugs, Richard Ashcroft's song has a double meaning, since it was written in response to the death of his father. Taken from the Verve album Urban Hymns and released in September 1997, it provided the band with their only number one single. The Verve split up in 1999 and Ashcroft, who many consider to be one of the finest voices to emerge out of the Britpop era, has since has a fitful solo career, noticeably appearing at last year's Live8 concert in London.

Dr Witchel, an expert in physiology at the University of Bristol medical school, said: "Music is undeniably powerful at triggering different emotional states. Changes in tempo and frequencies induce profoundly different emotional states.

"A slow-tempo song like the Verve's 'The Drugs Don't Work' slows the heart compared to most of the other songs and compared to white noise; in other words, it works like the emotional state of sadness."

Using 30 songs selected by the Official UK Charts Company, who compile the weekly pop charts, on the basis of sales positions, Dr Witchel, whose research was sponsored by mobile phone company Nokia, measured the effect on a representative sample of 15 volunteers with a broad range of musical tastes.

The level of sighs per minute (indicating the recall of happy memories) plus low level of boredom, was used for happy songs, sad tracks were indicated by decreased heart rate and exhilarating tunes by increase in breaths per minute.

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As well as Lily Allen's "LDN" the "happy" list included Beyonce's "Crazy In Love", Britney Spears's "Hit Me Baby One More Time" and Kylie Minogue's "Spinning Around". Dr Witchel said it was surprising that the Allen song topped the list since, although it had a strong musical beat, the lyrics were quite sad. The "exhilarating" list also contained well-known anthems such as the Rolling Stones' "Start Me Up" and U2's "Beautiful Day".

Dr Witchel, who used to play drums in Rolling Stones' and Beatles' cover bands, said scientific investigations of pop music were rare; most research concentrated on wordless classical music, seen to be more worthy of study.

Choose your mood


1 Lily Allen, LDN: Allen's third single and homage to both the good and bad of London.

2 Abba, Dancing Queen: The ultimate dance floor filler, corny but still great, even at office parties.

3 REM, Shiny Happy People Fluffy pop now disowned by the band, it was included in last year's Q magazine list of "Ten Terrible Records by Great Artists."


1 Verve, The Drugs Don't Work: Richard Ashcroft's mournful ode.

2 Robbie Williams, Angels: His career saving and most memorable song; once voted the number one song people would want at their funeral.

3 Elton John, Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest Word: John's second single on his Rocket Records label. Unusually, the words were mostly written by him.

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