Recently, a study was published in the Frontiers of Human Neuroscience that used functional MRI to determine how music impacted the emotional centers of the brain for the purpose of music therapy. You can read a summary of the research here or, for the more scientifically minded, here is a link to the actual research. In the study, they used Happy, Sad, and Fearful music, and talk about strategies that people use music to help them with their emotions. I know that I do this all the time.

I’ve got a happy playlist to pick me up on a bad day. So I figured I’d share ten of my favorite happy songs that aren’t Pharrell’s “Happy.” My list skews towards my musical interests, so feel free to add your happiness hits in the comments!

  1. “Ode to Joy” 4th movement of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony.I had the great joy of singing this in high school with the National Symphony Orchestra and a cacophony of singers. To be in the midst of hundreds of musicians in a state of such sonic exuberance is unequalled. 
  2. Rodeo, 4th movement, Aaron Copeland“Beef. It’s what’s for dinner.” But before that, it was the fourth movement of a Martha Graham choreographed ballet. The orchestra dances around it’s western themes, and Copeland is always a master orchestrator. Put it on, clear your living room floor, and gallop your imaginary horse all about. Guaranteed to make you smile.
  3. “Calico Train (remix)” by Steve MartinA little more mellow and restrained than our classical offerings, Steve Martin turns in a great performance with an amazing band. There’s something that feels so warm and nostalgic about this song, like being wrapped in a blanket, sitting by the fire with good friends, and maybe a beer and a banjo.
  4. Bobby McFerrin and YoYo Ma “Hush Little Baby”This album was one of those weird crossover collaborations, but it produced brilliant results. The joy of both musicians is palpable on this tune, and the interplay between them as McFerrin mimics the cello, and the cello gives it right back is fantastic. Bonus points for bringing back memories of the childhood rocking chair.
  5. Buddy Rich “Bugle Call Rag”I swear I don’t have an Americana fetish. This just happens to be one of the most jamming big band tunes. The band is ripping it out at over 250 beats per minute, the horn section is incredibly tight with a great blend, and a drum solo that can’t be beat.
  6. “Joy” by Georgia Mass ChoirWhether you are a believer or not, this song has an energy about it. In contrast to the “Bugle Call Rag,” it’s the slowest song on the list, but every word is an exclamation. I love the styling, too…the unified slides and bends that lift each note as it lifts your spirits.
  7. “Happy” by c2cThis song keeps the gospel revival going, but with secular lyrics. I’m guessing that this is the least known song on this list, and it’s unfortunate because the layering and texture of the samples is fantastic and infectious. This is one “Happy” you’ll get stuck in your head, and still be smiling.
  8. Robert Randolph and the Family Band “Ain’t Nothing Wrong With That”Here’s a song with a message: Everyone is welcome at this party. Part of it’s success comes from the deep rhythmic pocket of the band, and the slick production with a heavy pounding bass line that rips through you, daring you to try to sit still.
  9. Koko Taylor “Wang Dang Doodle”This is another party song, and once again, everyone is welcome. Except this time, she’s calling out some of the darker corners of the earth…drug addicts and criminals of all sorts. When they talk about dirty blues, this is what they mean. But even better, the band sets up a great riff, and just keeps the groove going until you are lost in it. Add Koko Taylor’s powerful voice on top, and you’ll be wanting to hang out with all her seedy characters, too.
  10. “Tonight Tonight” by Hot Chelle Rae
    I must confess this as a bit of a guilty pleasure. Sometimes, you want a great work of art. Sometimes, you just want something to get the job done. There’s nothing particularly innovative or amazing about this. It just hits all the right notes.

“Geology is the study of time and pressure. That’s all it takes really…pressure…and time…That, and a big goddamn poster.”

-Red, Shawshank Redemption

There are some skills in this world that take an immense effort to master. Learning a musical instrument is certainly one of them. I see it everyday with my piano students. They start off with it being easy. At some point, they hit a wall where it gets hard and the struggle begins. I do my best to be encouraging, to let them know that the struggle is part of the process, that I am there to help them through it, and that there is another side of accomplishment if they persevere. Voice is a little bit different in that voice students have already been using their voice to speak and sing, but even there, the process of changing habits is so gradual and incremental that they often get caught in the struggle of it.

I could make some cliche comment about living in a world of immediate gratification where we no longer value working for things. There’s certainly some truth to that, but we also live in a society that is increasingly valuing artisanal efforts built on dedication and training. Hand crafted, hand sewn, home brewed, self-created. Immediate gratification has given way to pursuing passions. I often think about how to explain the sisyphean effort to my students in a way that is inspiring and supportive rather than daunting.

It comes down to, what you do is what you get good at. If you play video games all the time, you get better at video games. If you sing all the time, you  get better at singing. There’s more to it than that, clearly; a quality of attention and pursuit of new skills in the time and effort expended. But it really is about time and pressure.

I think of it like Tetris. You play Tetris long enough, and you start to close your eyes and see Tetris. You dream Tetris. Your world becomes Tetris. And much like Tetris, it’s all about stacking. Place one good piece. That’s the job for today. Just one. Find one thing to work on, one thing to get better at, one way to get closer to the goal. And tomorrow, check on that piece, and add one more. Stack them up. Missing one day isn’t a problem. One bad week isn’t the end of the world. It’s when those one days regularly turn into four days, and one week turns into a month. We end up with a Tetris board riddled with holes. When the right piece finally comes along, there’s no chance for a tetris…no chance to clear four lines, to make that score when you’ve left the board a mess. So stack those days, and stack them tight. Who knows when the piece will come along that will tip all of your effort into your success.

I keep this in mind everyday as I work on my own career. Whether it’s practicing the Beethoven, working on the blog, writing a video, finding content for my facebook page…I keep stacking blocks, one well-placed block each day. I refuse to ask my students to do something I don’t do myself. What better way to inspire them than by pursuing my own dreams?