Last Night A Playlist Saved My Life

By Cristina Quinn

Jan. 11, 2012


Bow down to its healing powers. (Jason McHugh/Flickr)

BOSTON — From big band to the Beatles to the Bee Gees, music has set the tone for every generation. Music reflects how we live, and even who we are. And while that remains a constant, what has changed, is how we play our music. Innovations have carried us from vinyl records to cassette tapes to the metaphysical mp3. And the genesis of the iPod made everyone a DJ.

In just a few clicks, we are now curatorial wizards of song, creating playlists for parties, road trips, jogging routes. We all have those songs we rely on when we need a jumpstart, or when we want to wind down. When we asked people in a Brookline coffee shop, their choices included Duran Duran and the Bee Gees to boost up; trip-hop and classical Indian music to relax.

Nothing beats a good playlist. But could that playlist change your life?

The science of mind-changing sounds

Galina Mindlin, neuropsychiatrist and founder of Brain Music Therapy in New York, said that it can, no matter what genre you prefer: “It could be electronic or for some people hip-hop, or for some people classical music."

What's your musical drug of choice? Let us know in the comments. Here's our and your playlist so far:
Musical Get-Downs and Let-Downs by WGBH News on Grooveshark

In their new book “Your Playlist Can Change Your Life,” Mindlin and her colleagues say that we can use music to train our brains to be more productive, focused or relaxed.

We all understand the benefits of listening to music, whenever we turn on the stereo or put our earbuds in, but what Mindlin says we should do is create a playlist for every occasion — so we can optimize whatever we are doing at that moment.

“You really have to train your brain with listening and listening to the same tunes every time your mind would go to some mindset," Mindlin says. "For example, if you feel anxious, and your brain already remembers that certain tunes would calm you down, this is something we would advise you to listen as many times as you can. So your brain would really ingrain those tunes, and put those tunes in what we call, the certain music file.” Mindlin said.

That means if I’m feeling a little worn out but need to motivate myself to clean, I should pull up my David Bowie playlist — which based on Mindlin’s guidlines, I would rename “Songs for Cleaning” — and turn on the vacuum…

But to make this work, I have to listen to it over and over again. So that whenever I hear David Bowie, I will feel compelled to vacuum. (I just hope a vacuum cleaner is always nearby.)
Curating your productivity soundtrack

Mindlin says we have to figure out what songs work for us. David Bowie’s “Rebel Rebel” may work for me, but Bowie might not do the trick for you.

“You have to work on your preferences and see what kind of genre would really put you in that more productive phase.” Mindlin said.

Mindlin emphasizes how listening to music can make us think more clearly and have a heightened sense of our surroundings. All we need to do is categorize our playlists for occasions where we would like to optimize that experience. For example, “Songs for Driving to Work” or “Songs for Calming Down.”

“It’s very important to understand that musical stimuli is a pleasurable stimuli, is an electrical stimuli. It actually increases the amount of your neuronal connections. And this is very important. The more neuronal connections your brain has, the better your mind would be, the longer you would live in a productive way.” Mindlin said.

However, while Mindlin and her colleagues claim that these playlists can make major improvements in our lives with no side effects, sometimes it’s best to leave some things to the professionals.

Is Dr. DJ in the house?

Kathleen Howland is a music therapist and cofounder of the Greater Boston Music Therapy group. She says there are two factors that are really important in music.

“One is that it’s a focus, and that it’s a distraction. Which is really contrastive, but you focus on the music and you’re distracted from the things that do provoke anxiety.” Howland said.

At Howland’s home in Framingham there are instruments everywhere: on the floor, against the wall, and in her husband’s hands, who was in the next room practicing. Along with teaching music therapy at Berklee and the Boston Conservatory, she has a private practice where she works with cancer patients, specializing in pre-surgery anxiety.

“I do a very, very extensive assessment. So I’m really looking to evaluate their relationship to music. How they use it to accompany their lives. What choices do they make… what instruments do they prefer. And then I look at some relationship they have to nature or what their wishes are for stress.” Howland said.

And after her evaluation, she makes a 25-minute playlist, and like a prescription, it comes with instructions.

What makes her playlists different from the ones Mindlin suggests is music that doesn’t already have an established context for the listener. That's the point, she says.

“Music that they don’t know but has familiar elements that they have demonstrated preference for. Because I’m creating a new relationship to music, so I can’t have it polluted, so to speak, or conflicted with other relationships. Like the music they fell in love with, or anything like that.” Howland said.

Whether we turn to the Bee Gees to feel energized or unwind with some trip-hop, we all have personal relationships with music. Some of us choose to self-medicate while others let the music therapist prescribe us the right soundtrack. Either way, there’s no denying the stimulating and healing effect music has on us.
Now, where's that vacuum….

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