In my years as a music therapist, I've heard so many people describe music as a magical and mysterious force that somehow impacts our brains, bodies, and emotions. I've heard beautiful stories about the ways music helps children learn or brings an adult with dementia back into a coherent state, if only for a moment. "It brings people together," "It's universal," and some even say, "It feeds the soul." At this point, I always smile and reply, "Do you want to know why?"
Music Affects the Brain
Music is magical, it's true, but it's not all smoke and mirrors. Behind the mystical healing powers of music are scientific reasons for why it holds such an influence over our minds. Music is really a combination of many different elements, such as pitch, tempo, and dynamics. How fast, slow, or loud the music, the differently it impacts our brains. When these elements work in combination, we see dramatic changes in physiology and behavior. The effects of music have been documented by scientists for years, and despite its mysteries, one thing is certain: listening to music activates our entire brains, creating the potential for us to use music to improve the way we think, behave, and feel.
What is Music Therapy?
This is where music therapy comes in. Music therapists work with individuals of all ages to help them communicate, process difficult experiences, and improve motor or cognitive functioning. A music therapy session is an interactive music-making experience where the client uses musical instruments (including the voice) in either an exploratory manner or through a more personalized exercise designed by the therapist to address a specific issue. According to the American Music Therapy Association (AMTA), music therapy can have profound effects, and has helped many people since it became an established profession in the 1950s.
Create Your Own Therapeutic Playlist
When you play music as you're cleaning the house or listen to an energetic song during your morning workout, you could be using music therapeutically without even realizing it. However, by thoughtfully creating a selection of music, you can use a playlist to combat stress, achieve relaxation, increase motivation, and evoke positive emotions.
To start the process, address your current emotional state. Is it anxious, restless, or sad? How would you like to feel instead? With that goal in mind, know that it's important to bring yourself there gradually through a progression of music that first empathizes with your current mood and then slowly delivers you to your desired emotional state.
Here are some guidelines for creating your own therapeutic playlist:
1. Use Familiar Music
Start with your own music collection. Your previous associations with pieces of music determine the manner in which you will respond to them. Memories, especially emotional memories, are stimulated by music and can take us back in time in an instant. You already have labeled certain music as happy, sad, energizing, disturbing, and so on. Trust yourself and how you believe songs will make you feel. Once you identify what it is about music that makes you feel a certain way, you might want to supplement your current collection by finding new music that contains similar characteristics (choral voices or emphasized percussion). Place pieces of music into different categories according to your common moods like, sluggish, depressed, nervous, tired, anxious, stressed, and so on.
2. Use Music You Enjoy
There is no sense in using that awful music your mother/child/brother/friend makes you listen to. If you can't stand it, don't use it. You know what you like and should be able to find enough variety within your preferred music to match different moods.
3. Find Music That Speaks to You
A friend of mine once said, "Music is the ultimate form of empathy." As humans, we are constantly striving to be understood. This could explain why we tend to enjoy music that we find relatable or music that speaks to us in some way. Songs can validate our feelings and actually provide comfort when they match our mood. For instance, listening to sad music actually causes our brains to produce the same neurochemical that is released when we cry. This chemical, prolactin, helps to elicit feelings of comfort, meaning that listening to a sad song when we are feeling down not only provides empathy, it is causing our brains to start to try to make us feel better! 1
4. Match Your Mood
Think about how you feel right now. How fast are you moving (inside and out): is your heart racing? Are you feeling sluggish? Are you feeling heavy? How fast are you breathing? Before trying to change your mood with music, you will need to match it. This is easier done when you can consider different musical elements:
- Tempo. This one is easy. Pick a piece of music that matches your heartbeat, your breathing and how fast you feel you are moving.
- Volume. Are you feeling loud or soft? If you are overstimulated and feel like you need to turn everything off, first find the music that matches your current state. It might be loud and chaotic. Perhaps you are lacking energy and motivation, and things around you are quiet. Find a song with soft lyrics and instruments. Keep in mind that soft and slow do not always go together, and neither do loud and fast.
- Harmony and Timbre. Musical instrumentation and background vocals are often written to blend nicely with a melody to add layers of sound in a tonal structure. Some music actually uses instruments and tight harmonies that create a feeling of tension or dissonance. Think about your perceived level of stress and how tense you might feel. Also think about the instruments that appeal to you in the moment. The timbre of an instrument refers to the way it sounds. Do you feel like a distorted electric guitar or a clean piano? Do the deep, heavy sounds of a cello match your mood or are you feeling lighter like a flute or a high-pitched voice?
5. Consider Music Without Lyrics
Song lyrics leave a little less up to the imagination because someone else's story is being told. When lyrics are included in a piece of music, more of our brains are used to process these lyrics. They might also stimulate more memories. If you are using music for the purpose of trying to relax, you want to allow your mind to wander without consciously focusing on the music. This is more challenging when lyrics are involved. Consider choosing instrumental music or a song where the lyrics reflect the way you are feeling.
6. Order Your List to Help You Reach an Intended Mood
As noted earlier, consider your goal. Do you want to feel energetic, happy, relaxed, or optimistic after listening to your playlist? With your intended mood in mind, think of how you might organize the songs to bring you from your current emotional state to your desired. For example, if you started with an up-tempo piece of music that matched your initial state of high anxiety, find something a little slower for your next song. If you are trying to move toward a more relaxed state, select a piece of music that is slightly slower for your third song. The third piece should also have less instrumentation or vocals. The idea is to decrease the amount of stimulation in the music so that your playlist can facilitate a gradual transition while allowing you time to adjust to the music. Select songs that are at least three minutes long and make sure your playlist contains at least thirty minutes of music. You want to give your body plenty of time to experience your current emotion and adjust physiologically with the music.
Trust Your Musical Intuition
If you've ever listened to music and were moved to tears or motivated to run an extra mile because of it, you already understand that music can have an extreme impact on emotions. When intended, music can provide comfort during difficult times and also promote relaxation. You might be thinking that music is more complicated than you originally thought. It is! Although there is much to consider when using music therapeutically, humans have a particular knack for choosing music that soothes and heals them, without having to think too much about the technical aspects. Trust the way you feel, and if you think you might need more assistance with this process, consult a board-certified music therapist.
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1Huron, D. (2011). Why is sad music pleasurable? A possible role for prolactin. Musicae Scientiae, 15(2), 146-158
Date of original publication: March 12, 2015
Updated: October 29, 2016