Anyone who's had a bad day, then flipped the car radio on and caught the first notes of a favorite song knows how quickly music can lift the spirits. But can that momentary burst of musical power be tapped more strategically to make you a better, happier, more productive person?
All that and more, say the psychologist-entrepreneur authors of the new book "Your Playlist Can Change Your Life."
Like sex, drugs or really good food, music causes the brain to release dopamine, a brain chemical key to addiction and motivation. That's one reason why people like it so much. The effects extend beyond the merely pleasurable: Music (often in tandem with dance) is used in rehabilitation for stroke and Parkinson's disease.
The authors of "Playlist" go further. They argue that music's benefits hold for everyone and that if we queue up our tunes with care they'll lift our mood, reduce anxiety, raise motivation, help us work out better and even fight off depression and insomnia.
The trick, they say, is to find what songs relax you, say, or make you more alert -- and then hone your playlist to fit the moment. The speed of a song is one key audio feature: Norah Jones' "Turn Me On," at a leisurely 56 beats per minute, may be the perfect musical nightcap after work. The driving 139 bpm of Michael Jackson's "Beat It" can push you into high alert, just what you need before that presentation you're hoping will impress the suits.
Even listening to the rhythmic sounds of the ocean, at the beach or through earphones, can relax you and allow you to reach what the authors call a state of "flow," a somewhat hard-to-define state of mind that's akin to "being in the zone" -- focused on the task but still at ease, able to perform at your best.
A few additional tips from the authors on how to make the most out of your listening experience:
Know yourself. A song's activating or relaxing potential doesn't just rely on how fast it is -- emotional connection is key, the authors say. So even though No Doubt's "Don't Speak" clocks in at just 76 beats per minute, making it great in theory for winding down, the drums and pathos in Gwen Stefani's vocals make this ballad to a breakup anything but relaxing for me.
Context is key. "You really need to get in tune with the mind-set you're in at the moment," says Galina Mindlin, an assistant clinical professor in psychiatry at Columbia University in New York and one of the book's three authors. "Sometimes one song will energize you at one moment, but in another moment it would make you more anxious, kind of over-energized."
Study your material. To heighten a song's effect, try linking images in your mind to your songs. Look for meaning in the lyrics, and listen critically: Pick out instruments from the harmony to see how they contribute to the sound, or attend to the rhythm to figure out how a staccato drum segment in the song amps you up.
Anticipating the parts you remember and enjoy about a song is rewarding, says neuroscientist Robert Zatorre of McGill University, who studies emotion and music. It's the same basic concept behind why lab rats get excited when they see blinking lights that precede when they generally get food.
Not that Zatorre buys all the sweeping promises in the book. (And as far as mental smarts go, studies show you'll get a lot more bang for your buck if you play music rather than passively listen to it.)
That said, it's an interesting exercise to try to formulate playlists based on the book's ideas. Whether your life changes or not, getting to better know your own music -- and your own state of mind -- may be reward enough.
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For thrills, chills, hills
Here are sample playlists, each "arced" for a purpose, from some folks who can really pick out a tune.
Rico Love Singer-songwriter | record producer
PICK-ME-UP: I wake up early, no matter how late I am in the studio. I believe in no days off, so to get me up and moving:
"Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough"
by Michael Jackson
"Aguanile" by Hector Lavoe
"Why I Love You" by Kanye West and Jay-Z, featuring Mr. Hudson
"Hello Good Morning"
by Diddy-Dirty Money, featuring T.I.
CHILL OUT: I've been really stressed out this past week, so what gets me to calm down and focus:
"In the Air Tonight" by Phil Collins
"Vicious World" by Rufus Wainwright
"The Sweetest Taboo" by Sade
"Losing My Religion" by R.E.M.
WORK IT OUT: I can't start any day without going to the gym. When I'm working out with my trainer, I listen to:
"Without You" by David Guetta, featuring Usher
"We Found Love" by Rihanna, featuring Calvin Harris
"Way Too Gone" by Young Jeezy, featuring Future
"Bangarang" by Skrillex, featuring Sirah
Garth Trinidad DJ | KCRW-FM
PICK ME UP: Having kids means I'm up at the crack of dawn. For the ride to school, Murs has the whole fam head-bopping; then it's high-energy rhythms perfect for playground plans and Daddy's daytime adventures.
"Fresh Kicks" by Murs and Terrace Martin
"Lisa Lisa Lisa" by Yellow Alex and the Feelings
"Inspiration as a Recurring Theme" by Big Moves
CHILL OUT: When the workday ends at 3 a.m., nothing like plugging in the headphones to chill the beta waves out.
"Volver" by Ana Tijoux
"Love Song -1" by the Internet
"Trust Fall" (Down We Go Remix by Jensen Sportag) by Madi Diaz
WORK IT OUT: We'll call this hypothetical; it's been a while since I've witnessed the fitness.
"Crocodile Skins" by Spirit Animal
"Why Am I the Only One Laughing?" by Blah Blah Blah
"What You Gon' Do?" by Stiffed
Randall Roberts Pop music critic | Los Angeles Times
PICK ME UP: These serve as the psychic fuel in my life:
"Come to Life" by Arthur Russell
"Countdown" by Beyonce
"Rocket Number Nine" by Sun Ra
"A Life of Crime" by the Weirdos
CHILL OUT: These are comfort food: Shuggie Otis' exquisite musical note penned on a beach, the xx honoring the warm feeling of a night on the couch. Joni Mitchell is, well, Joni Mitchell, and this Gavin Bryars work is wondrously ethereal.
"Jesus' Blood Never Failed Me Yet" by Gavin Bryars
"My Old Man" by Joni Mitchell
"Island Letter" by Shuggie Otis
"VCR" by the xx
WORK IT OUT: Hard rhythms are natural performance enhancers, turning a daily drag into a virtual dance party.
"Losing My Edge" by LCD Soundsystem
"Street Fighting Man" by the Rolling Stones
"Knights of the Jaguar" by DJ Rolando
"The New Workout Plan" by Kanye West
-- Amina Khan