In 2015, cognitive neuroscientist and psychologist at the University of Groningen, Dr. Jacob Jolij, created a formula to determine the most uplifting songs of all time. At least, in popular music.
While we all know there is no formula for what makes a song click – music is so very subjective – the study certainly went about it the right way.
First, electronics company Alba went to the people, taking a survey of customers’ “feel good” songs. Then, Jolij took those songs and tried to determine what they all had in common. Scientifically. And that Jolij could do.
Though, he did acknowledge he couldn’t factor in the personal aspects that make one person appreciate a song more than someone else, there were some commonalities.
Uplifting songs, according to Jolij’s formula, require three things – a major key, more beats per minute than average, and a lot of chords. Though, a major key is more important than a lot of chords and all the songs that shook out of this formula had relatively positive lyrics.
All of these factors in place, Jolij made a list of ten popular songs that should be “uplifting” for most people, and it looked like this –
- “Don’t Stop Me Now” – Queen
- “Dancing Queen” – Abba
- “Good Vibrations” – The Beach Boys
- “Uptown Girl” – Billy Joel
- “Eye of the Tiger” – Survivor
- “I’m a Believer” – The Monkees
- “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” – Cyndi Lauper
- “Livin’ on a Prayer” – Bon Jovi
- “I Will Survive” – Gloria Gaynor
- “Walking on Sunshine” – Katrina and the Waves
The most notable thing about Jolij’s list might be that the songs on it are not necessarily inspirational. They don’t provide long-term uplift.
They simply make a listener feel better in the moment. And mostly it’s about the music itself, not the lyrics.
How accurate is it? Probably not very. There are a few songs on Jolij’s list that definitely don’t turn my happy crank.
And all of these songs were radio releases of course, because “popular” pretty much rules out album cuts. Which means it’s a list based on like five percent of the musical supply max.
But, hey, it did a thing, offering some insight into the fact that “feel good songs” are less about inspirational or hopeful lyrics and more about a happy sound and limited drama.
Keeping Jolij’s three factors in mind, here are some uplifting songs to help pull you out of a funk according to my personal ear science.
Uplifting Pop Songs
These songs are just that – uplifting pop songs. Nothing more, nothing less. Don’t expect a pep talk or inspiration.
But all of these songs have groovy beats and painless lyrics that will give you a booster shot of zing when you’re feeling a little low.
1) Holiday – Madonna
Madonna doesn’t get enough credit for this song. She really doesn’t. It’s fun, it’s dancey, it’s got that definitively 80s synth intro that lets you know what you’re in for.
Basically, it’s a highly listenable treat.
Moment of Uplift: That first beat.
Please enjoy the fashion in the official video –
2) Dancing in the Street – Martha & the Vandellas or David Bowie & Mick Jagger
Holy party anthem. Seriously, the intro sounds like a rallying cry to get up and shake the blues off.
Which it pretty much is.
Moment of Uplift: Well, it opens on a trumpet, so from the very beginning.
The originals –
And this video is pure joyful shenanigans. Plus, it sports some serious homoeroticism before anyone dared call it that.
Which almost makes up for the depressingly heteronormative lyrics.
Every guy grab a girl? No, thanks. Not in this enlightened decade.
3) I Wanna Dance with Somebody – Whitney Houston
There was a bit of dancing going on in the 80s. And on this list. But dance tunes tend to be happy tunes, so what are you gonna do?
This song has a bit more “meat” than its peers. It’s actually about loneliness and the search for lasting love.
But it’s not gonna break your heart getting you there.
Moment of Uplift: The intro leaves very little doubt that this song is going to make you happy, but by the “Wooo” you’re fully invested.
4) Let’s Go Crazy – Prince
Dearly Beloved, we are gathered here today
To get through this thing called life
This song is all about living it up while you have the chance. And it’s quick tempo and (relatively) light lyrics try to help you along the way.
Moment of Uplift: The instant that keyboard comes in.
5) So Young – The Corrs
Oh, look! A song not recorded or re-recorded in the 80s.
What can I say? The 80s were partying times, Man.
Anyway, this song by The Corrs wasn’t recorded until the late 90s. It’s got happy lyrics, a happy beat, and those trademark Corrs’ harmonies.
Moment of Uplift: “Yeah, yeah, yeah yeah, yeah!”
6) Breathless – The Corrs
I’m adding this song to the list for the music alone.
It was The Corrs’ most successful song. And it’s not hard to hear why. It’s got a beat that’s just made for summer radio.
It’s not my favorite Corrs song, but it’s hard to stay too depressed when that first bass kick comes in.
Moment of Uplift: That first bass kick.
7) Happy – Pharrell Williams
If you’re gonna write a song called “Happy,” it damn well better deliver.
Thankfully, it does. (And so does its video.)
Moment of Uplift: There are at least two. The opening beats, which demand you tune in. And again, when you get to the harmonious, clapping chorus.
8 – Se Fué (Live) – Laura Pausini
There are a multitude of versions of this song, including the original Italian – Non c’è.
In its first inception, Se Fué, like Non c’è, was a ballad and so, so wrong. Then, it got a remixed up-tempo version and something very special was born.
The lyrics aren’t happy, but if you don’t speak Spanish you won’t even know it.
It’s not often I’ll proclaim that a dance mix is better than the original, or that the alternate language version of a song is better than its native language, but there’s a reason even the Italians in the audience at a Laura Pausini concert scream for Se Fué.
Moment of Uplift: The bridge. In this video it comes in around 2:20, but you can feel the build to it the entire song.
9) Hey Ya! – OutKast
This is not a happy song. It could be, but there are those few meddlesome lyrics that simply won’t let it.
However, musically it’s infectiously upbeat and most of the lyrics go in one ear and out the other. Until you start shaking it like a Polaroid picture.
Moment of Uplift: From the count in.
Upbeat Motivational Songs
Not in the mood to simply shake your ass? Need a little more substance in your uplifting tunes?
These next songs combine good beats with motivational lyrics.
10) Get On Your Feet – Gloria Estefan
It’s a dance lyric! It’s a mantra! It’s both – a directive AND a metaphor. And it’s a super, super smart dance song.
If you just hear the chorus, you think it’s about getting up and doing that groove thing. But when you listen to the verses, you realize it’s actually a song about shaking off depression and pressing forward into tomorrow.
Moment of Uplift: From the first note, but it amplifies at the chorus.
11) Tubthumping – Chumbawamba
Most repetitive song ever written? It’s certainly a contender.
But, if you’ve been knocked down, it’s nice to know you can get up again.
And the rest of the lyrics are utterly mindless. Unless you’re an alcoholic, in which case you should probably skip this one.
Moment of Uplift: From the initial chorus. If you can call it a chorus.
12) I’m Beautiful – Bette Midler
Some Bette Midler songs are for a very specific audience – basically a true Bette Midler audience. This one definitely meets that definition.
Don’t expect Wind Beneath My Wings or From a Distance. This is the Divine Miss M at her most divine.
If you can get into it, don’t be surprised if it’s stuck in your head for days to come.
Moment of Uplift: Before the song even starts. Intentionally.
13) All Star – Smash Mouth
Good soundtrack addition? About a million movie directors thought so.
Okay, so like five, but, still, that’s a lot of movie appearances for a single song.
And why not? The music’s upbeat, the lyrics are painless, and the chorus is catchy.
This song isn’t gonna change the world, but it might change your mood and give you a momentary boost of confidence.
Moment of Uplift: From the start. The music is darn bouncy.
Who said you need lyrics to be uplifted? Here are a handful of instrumental playlists/songs that can get you pepped without words.
14. Molang (The Album)
So, there are a handful of words here, but you won’t understand most of them.
A short collection of songs based on the cartoon of the same name, the music is as happy as the show.
15. Toss the Feathers – The Corrs
An Irish band who (for the most part) stays true to their roots, The Corrs do a lot of instrumental album cuts.
But this is the one that makes you want to learn to play the tin whistle.
And it’s so good live.
16. Fuego – Bond
Bond has a lot of upbeat, passionate instrumentals on their albums. It’s hard to pick just one.
So, I won’t.
I’ll pick this one…
And this one…
17) Victory – Bond