Music and happiness

“Music produces a kind of pleasure which human nature cannot do without.”  – Confucius, philosopher.

“All we need is music sweet music” – Dancing in the Street, Martha and the Vandellas.

Since the earliest cultures began to evolve, music and song have been linked to ritual and worship —  as well as celebration and euphoria. 

Primal sounds

Do you have that go-to song that you know will lift you up? Are there pieces of music that have helped you through the most difficult times? Do you get goosebumps when you hear something special? From musicians and collectors to the average listener, humans’ relationship with music is special. Like many people, Roger, a guitarist and founding member of the New Note Orchestra, discovered his love of music as a child. 

“I was first introduced to music by my parents.The music they listened to was so awesome to me. I loved listening to all their old 60s and 70s stuff, and I remember getting told off for listening to their records as a kid. They always knew when I’d done it.”

Music seems to be a common language. All human societies have music and sing lullabies to calm infants. Rhythmic phrases are universally understood, and tonal music is also a common feature across the world. All this suggests that there’s something innate in the biology of humans. Charles Darwin theorised that music was a form of communication prior to words in mating rituals. Other theories suggest that for our distant ancestors, music was used as a way of communal bonding, similar to how many ape communities howl.

It’s physical

Picture: an arm with the hair standing on end to illustrate the term frission

Frisson is the scientific term for intense sensations that cause our hair to stand on end.

Whatever the reason for our love of it, music makes us happy, and there is research backing this. In January 2011, McGill University, of Montreal, Canada, released a study paper that showed that music releases dopamine, the chemical in the brain that makes us feel happy. The study reported that when participants listened to music that they loved, 9% more dopamine was released. This led to increased heart rate, more focus, and frisson — the scientific term for the chills and goosebumps many people experience. 

Happiness is a serious business

The United Nation General Assembly’s International Happiness Day was 20th March, 2022, and they are keen to point out that an emphasis on being happy is not a frivolous pursuit. “People are now recognising that ‘progress’ should be about increasing human happiness and wellbeing, not just growing the economy.” it states.

We have just seen our lives turned upside down by the Covid-19 pandemic, we are facing a climate crisis and war in Europe, and millions across the globe are being made refugees. Happiness is not just an escape from the darkness that many of us see. Even in difficult situations, happiness is essential for our physical and psychological well being.

Today, a Polish friend asked me to record a quick video singing ‘Old McDonald had a Farm’ for some Ukrainian children refugees that are staying at her parents’ in Poland,” Roger told me. “It was such a great honour that I learnt a little Ukrainian. When I sent the recording, they replied saying how moved they are and a big thank you.”

A happy recovery

The traditional media representation of the alcoholic/addict in recovery is one of a struggling individual, trying to stay on the straight and narrow in a drab, grey life, but for millions of people around the world, this is far from the truth. Though, for the majority, the last days of active addiction are dark, the journey of recovery doesn’t have to be. 

Happiness, it can be argued, is one of the most essential ingredients of a healthy recovery. The idea of the “dry drunk,” i.e., someone who suffers the same mental anguish of the person actively using, but without the actual substance, is common within recovery circles. 

The opposite is that of a grateful recovery: From gratitude comes peace of mind, and from peace of mind comes happiness. Though times can be tough, without the ultimate goal of happiness, one might ask what the point of recovery is altogether.

This is why, for so many people, peer groups are so important. However, there are other routes for happiness in recovery, and at The New Note Orchestra, we believe that music can be one of those routes. Roger tells us: “I tried to be musically active in the past, but drink and drugs got in the way. I was in a few bands from a teenager to early 20s and enjoyed jamming with friends, but I never really committed to anything — drink and drugs always came first. After my mid-20s, I didn’t even listen to music anymore, I just wanted to get out of it

But when I got sober, my love of music returned, and it had increased tenfold. I relearned the guitar and learned to play and sing the songs that I loved.

Make music work

A group of musicians sitting in a circle playing instruments

Communal music can help build bonds and increase happiness

Across the county, organisations are discovering the power of music in recovery. The New Note Orchestra is now in its eighth year, and week by week, we see how positive experiences help us all in our daily lives.

The Bristol Recovery Orchestra has been active since 2019, similarly supporting people with drug and alcohol dependency or addiction. The Tonic Ska Choir is a Portsmouth-based organisation that helps people with mental health conditions. And the Brighton-based label We Are Not Saints is an organisation close to our heart, not least because they put out the most recent New Note album, Kind Rebellion. They specialise in supporting artists who have experienced addiction. 

Make it personal

It’s not just through these organisations that people can find support in music. “Music takes on many roles in my recovery,” Roger says. “I collect it, whether it be CDs, books, or films. I read about the history of music and my favourite artists. I enjoy listening to it, and I meditate with it. Music can take on a spiritual role, soothing and uplifting me. It’s also a social thing. Sometimes I’m playing with others, and sometimes I’m doing the sound tech or learning and playing a piece because someone asked me to. Music is an integral role in my recovery — it’s up there with rehab and fellowship, and without it, I wouldn’t be here”  

Life is difficult for many people around the world, but we all deserve a bit of happiness. So take some time out to listen to your favourite piece or maybe something from our goosebumps playlist. Music is good for you — that’s just science.



We have compiled a playlist of music that gives us goosebumps


Roger has been sending songs to Ukrainian Refugees, and they’ve been sending the back, and out hearts are melting.




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