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Nirvana and Pharrell Tracks Best Convey Sadness and Happiness, science shows

Scientific analysis by Durham University researcher reveals Pharrell’s ‘Happy’ is the track which best conveys joy to listeners; while Nirvana’s ‘Something In The Way’ expresses most misery 

In an era of music streaming, there’s a playlist and song for every occasion. But HappyOrNot, makers of the ‘smiley face’ customer feedback terminals found in airports and retail spaces across the world, commissioned Annaliese Micallef Grimaud, PhD candidate at Durham University’s Music Department, to undertake an analysis to confirm which most-streamed pop songs – acknowledged to be the happiest or saddest – can truly be considered to best convey the intended emotions to listeners.  

Annaliese Micallef Grimaud’s research analyses which songs create the best blueprint for happiness and misery. Songs were analysed according to tempo, overall dynamics level, vocal pitch range levels, average onset frequency values, and mode (e.g. the order of the notes) of the songs, to determine which songs are perceived as conveying the happiest or saddest emotions respectively.  

The song crowned happiest is ‘Happy’ (2013) by Pharrell Williams 

Annaliese Micallef Grimaud comments: “Based on my research, the combination of a fast tempo, high pitch level, major mode, loud dynamics level, staccato articulation, and a bright timbre help communicate happiness in music. From the list of happy songs, ‘Happy’ by Pharrell Williams ranked as the happiest song. Compared to the other songs on the list, ‘Happy’ has the fastest tempo, the loudest dynamics level, the highest average onset frequency value, and high pitch levels in the vocal range, and although the song varies in mode, elements pertaining to a major mode are also present.”  

‘Happy’ surged in popularity after being released as the only single from the soundtrack of the 2013 film ‘Despicable Me 2’.  

The song crowned saddest is ‘Something in the Way’ (1991) by Nirvana 

Annaliese Micallef Grimaud comments: “Results from my research indicate that a slow tempo, minor mode, legato articulation, soft dynamics level, low pitch level, and a dark timbre help convey sadness in music. From the list of sad songs, ‘Something in the Way’ by Nirvana ranked as the saddest song. The song is written in minor mode, and has a slow tempo, the softest dynamics level, the smallest average onset frequency value, and low pitch levels in the vocal range, making it the saddest compared to the other songs. 

‘Something in the Way’ was recently used in the soundtrack for ‘The Batman’ (2022) and consequently featured as part of a trend on TikTok.  

The full rankings of the analysis are as follows: 

Songs expressing happiness 
  1. ‘Happy’ (2013), Pharrell Williams  
  2. ‘Hey Ya’ (2003), Outkast  
  3. ‘Girls Just Wanna Have Fun’ (1983), Cyndi Lauper  
  4. ‘Don’t Stop Me Now’ (1979), Queen  
  5. ‘Feeling Good’ (1965), Nina Simone :  
Songs expressing sadness 
  1. ‘Something in the Way’ (1991), Nirvana :  
  2. ‘Everybody Hurts’ (1992), R.E.M. :  
  3. ‘Tears in Heaven’ (1992), Eric Clapton :  
  4. ‘Nutshell’ (1994), Alice in Chains  
  5. ‘Black’ (1991), Pearl Jam  

HappyOrNot selected the five songs with the most listens on Spotify from Rolling Stone’s list of the 10 saddest songs of all time (as voted by their readers), and the five most-played songs from NME’s best happy songs list for analysis.  

About Annaliese Micallef Grimaud 

Annaliese Micallef Grimaud is a PhD candidate in the music department of Durham University. She has co-authored the article ‘An Interactive Approach to Emotional Expression Through Musical Cues’ in the journal Music & Science  

In a previous research project involving classic music, in which participants changed features of instrumental music to express different emotions, she created unique formulae (combinations of the different musical features) for each emotion being expressed via music, including joy, sadness, anger, calm and surprise. Annaliese’s research revealed that most musical features were intentionally used in a specific manner to create different emotions, suggesting that participants had a certain idea of how the different emotions could be created in music. Adapting the original formulae to suit music with vocals for this analysis, Annaliese was able to identify which songs best express sadness and joy (without taking the meaning of the lyrics into account). 

Annaliese Micallef Grimaud, PhD candidate at Durham University, comments: “In my research, I explore how people, irrespective of their musical knowledge (if any), think different emotions should sound like in music. Certain ‘levels’ of musical features and their combinations tend to be associated with particular emotions. On their own, the cues can point to more than one emotion e.g., a slow tempo could be both for a sad or calm piece, but the more cues in the combination, the higher the chance of successfully communicating a particular emotion in the music. Versions of these ‘formulas’ were used to analyse the songs given here to determine which song is the happiest and saddest, based on the research. Here, we are looking at how the cues are used to communicate emotion in Western tonal music, however, the use of these cues may differ in other cultures. Although the songs analysed are commercial music and contain lyrics, which make it more challenging to dissect, the formulas give us a good indication of which songs are most expressing sadness and joy.”

Miika Mäkitalo, CEO of HappyOrNot, comments: It’s no secret that music can profoundly affect how we feel, or that musicians can seek to express their feelings at a certain time or about a certain topic through their work. Being a Finnish company, we know a thing or two about happiness – Finland has won first place in the World Happiness Report for five consecutive years. Funnily enough, Finns consume a lot of music in minor and Finland has the most metal bands per capita. And Finns have a reputation for rarely smiling – the ‘Finnish smile’ meme pokes fun at our typically stoic nature, with Finns not always showing our happiness on our faces –  – but expressions of feelings are what we’re all about at HappyOrNot. Our customers can use our iconic smileys to give feedback on their experiences – positive, negative, or somewhere in-between! We hope people enjoy the results of this research, and listening to the different songs.”


 (This news was first covered by The Independent, found here)