Average tempo of a hit is the key to history

Speeding up: Our top 20 songs today have an average of 122 beats per minute. © BBC

Is music what makes us human? As the world went into lockdown, pop music rediscovered its ecstatic streak. Researchers say that our choice of music is the best guide to how we really feel.

In Italy, during the strictest parts of lockdown, neighbours took to their balconies, all singing in unison. In Wuhan, where the virus started, patriotic songs were chanted from the windows across the city.

The music we choose to listen to is a mirror of our emotional state, researchers believe.

So far, in 2020, the top singles in pop music are, on average, the quickest they have been for over a decade. “You wouldn’t think the world is going through a crisis,” says pop star and leading songwriter, Raye.

Worried about her daughter’s listening habits, California mathematician Natalia Komorova dug into the data around pop music.

She found that, for several years, the charts were dominated by slower beats, but 2020 has welcomed back disco. The Weekend, Lady Gaga and Dua Lipa have all had hits that echo the party sound of yesteryear. Indeed, the latter’s new album is called Future Nostalgia.

As journalist Brittany Spanos points out, many of 2020’s biggest hits owe their success to social video platform TikTok, where singles like Doja Cat’s earworm, Say So, have inspired countless choreographed imitations.

Without bars and clubs to dance in, the pandemic has allowed listeners to bring disco into their own homes. It has also enabled people to transcend the physical limitations of lockdown by dancing with strangers around the world.

But is there a deeper trend at play – a rebellion against the uncertainty of the outside world?

Music journalist Charlie Harding believes so. “This upbeat shift happened during the Great Depression and during World War Two.”

Music that we enjoy, releases dopamine – a natural high. A 2013 study suggests that people are more likely to spend money on music that releases more dopamine.

In 2014, a study of musicians showed that playing an instrument and having a conversation light up the same part of the brain.

While instruments have been custom built and played by people for at least 40,000 years – dating back far earlier than writing – very few other animals share the ability to bop a beat.

So, is music what makes us human?

The tune of our species

Yes. It allows us to dance, cry, and feel immortal. All of our other skills, from tool-making to language, can be found elsewhere in the animal kingdom. No wonder that even humanity’s most rational minds find joy in the thrill of rhythm and melody. As Einstein once said, “Life without playing music is inconceivable for me.”

No. It is more of an escape than an essential. We can certainly live without music. It should be seen as a beautiful additive or escape from the real trouble of existence. Music is nice, but it should never be seen as everything.

You Decide

  1. Do you think there is anything that brings different sorts of people together better than music?
  2. What do you use music for in your day-to-day life?


  1. Write the lyrics to a short song about your experience during lockdown.
  2. Make a list of the songs you were listening to this time last year and compare them to what you’re listening to now. Write a short piece comparing what has changed about your music taste in that time.

Some People Say...

“Without music, life would be a mistake.”

Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900), German philosopher and sometime composer

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Darwin was wrong. Most animals do not have an innate sense of musicality. Scientists like Robert Zatorre have found that “our capacity to synchronise to a beat” be that through playing an instrument or dancing “may be shared by only a few other species”.
What do we not know?
We do not have any way of measuring how important music and dancing is to humans. Just because it can have positive effects does not make it any more or less important than other aspects of our existence. Its experience is so subjective that, perhaps, it is best that the true mechanism of the audio arts remains a mystery.

Word Watch

A type of dance music and a subculture that emerged in the 1970s from the American urban nightlife scene. Its sound is typified by stomping beats, syncopated bass lines and life-affirming vocals. Gloria Gaynor, the Bee Gees, and Donna Summer were superstars of the genre.
A song or piece of music that gets stuck in your head and that you can’t stop hearing or singing along to even when you aren’t listening to anything.
Something where the movement of the body has been planned and designed beforehand, as in dance or ballet.
To go beyond the range or limits of (a field of activity or conceptual sphere).
A hormone and neurotransmitter that plays several important roles in the brain and body, providing us with positive sensations, rewarding us for evolutionarily good behaviours like eating food.


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