‘Your Playlist Can Change Your Life’: Can music boost your brain?

Tips on how to make the most out of your listening experience.
(Pete Ryan / For The Los Angeles Times)

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 andParkinson’s disease.


Playlists to take you higher, lower or farther

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 ofMichael 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 keening 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.