Why happy music is bad for you

Happy music tends to make us happy, but is that a good thing? In many cases, the answer is yes. However, recent research warns that the reality is not always that simple. Happy, upbeat music does tend to make us feel happier, but, in turn, it can also make us more compliant and open to manipulation.

Naomi Ziv, a psychologist at the College of Management Academic Studies in Rishon Le Zion, Israel, found that study participants were more willing to do morally questionable tasks when asked to do so with Mozart’s Allegro from “A Little Night Music” or James Brown’s “I Got You (I Feel Good)” playing in the background. Similar tests yielded the same basic results.

The musical coercion is, perhaps, best seen in marketing. As Ziv told the BBC‘s Richard Gray, “Christmas music is a perfect example of music that can make people more compliant. There are whole teams of people who think about what music to play in shopping malls and adverts to set the right atmosphere.”

Dallas Baptist University’s Jason McCoy adds that such principles are behind much of the success seen in Nazi Germany, where swing music often accompanied the German propaganda, and in the 1994 Rwandan genocide, where messages of hate were couched in music to make them seem more acceptable. Essentially, such appealing songs make us turn off, or at least turn down, the parts of our brains that approach situations analytically. Add in the fact that the brainwaves of those in groups listening to the same rhythm begin to sync with the music—which is, perhaps, why drums were a popular way of getting soldiers to march in formation throughout much of history—and it becomes easy to see the potentially damaging ramifications of allowing our musical exposure to go unnoticed.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that we would all be better off trading Mozart and James Brown for heavy metal and rap, though studies have also shown that the latter can help us cope better with our anger. After all, there are some instances where it’s good to make a message easier to accept. Many hymns, for example, help us better understand God’s truth by putting it to music. Even with Christian music, however, we should never take the veracity of the lyrics for granted. A belief is not necessarily true just because the hymnal says so.

Luke’s praise of the Bereans for constantly testing Paul’s teachings against God’s word offers a helpful model in this regard (Acts 17:11). Rather than being insulted when the Bereans didn’t simply accept his lessons on Jesus, Paul was encouraged because he knew that he had nothing to fear. He was teaching God’s truth, and that knowledge was his ultimate source of confidence.

You see, we never need to be afraid of the truth. If something is really of God, then it will stand up to testing. If our first reaction when someone challenges our faith is either defensiveness or fear, then it says a lot about the quality of our faith to those around us. If, however, we respond to such challenges with an eagerness to discuss the matter further, then we demonstrate confidence that God’s truth will hold up. And if some aspect of our beliefs is proven to be inaccurate, then that too is reason to rejoice as it helps us know our Lord better.

In the end, using our minds to examine that which is taught and asked of us is the best way to know God and live according to his word and will. There will be times, however, where fiction sounds better to us than the truth. But whether those lies come via music or in some other format, trust that if it’s really worth believing or doing, it will stand up against the testing of Scripture. Even sheep know better than to listen to a false shepherd (John 10:1–5). Do we?