Music, more than any other art form, has the power to give us an immediate emotional “hit” – everyone has a song that makes them want to cry, or a tune they can’t help but dance to. But what if we opted to take control – using what we listen to in order to affect our moods – or make our minds and bodies work more effectively? Will pressing play on something cheery actually cheer us up? Will listening to something rousing motivate us?
According to music therapist Adam Sankowski, of the Harvard Medical School in Massachusetts General Hospital, music is an easy way to manage not only our feelings, but how we function.
“Our brains and bodies are hardwired for music,” he says. “This is something neurological research has increasingly supported. Through brain-scanning technology, researchers can now clearly see multiple parts of the brain light up when someone listens to music.
“Imagine watching a horror movie without any music in it. How would you know that you’re about to be scared? Conversely, every sporting event uses music to pump up the crowd. Music is used throughout the world to manipulate our moods.”
The same trick can be used in our everyday lives: by putting on the right soundtrack at the right time we can actually sleep better, exercise harder and work more productively.
“A basic guideline is to try to match the music to the mood that you want to have,” he says. “If you need to get excited, listen to exciting music. Need to calm down? Listen to calming music. Instead of listening to the music that matches your current mood try listening to the music that matches the mood that you want to be in.
“Unlike other functions located in specific areas of the brain, there isn’t a music-specific area of the brain. That is, the entire brain is music-specific.” This means that using music to affect our moods can be incredibly powerful.
With this in mind, we’ve put together a playlist that should see you through your day – and, matters of taste aside (fair enough, not everyone loves AC/DC), help you bring out the best in yourself…
7am: Wake Up!
Start the day with something that’s going to get you up and at ’em. According to research by Spotify and Cambridge University psychologist David Greenberg, the ideal wake-up tune will “start gently (even for just a few seconds) and then build,” and will contain positive lyrics “to get you out of a grumpy state and shift towards a feel-good attitude”. Try Arcade Fire’s Wake Up – or for something a little more delicate, the smooth, sunny optimism of Bill Withers’ Lovely Day.
8:30am: Hit the Gym
Time to get motivated. There’s a reason why gyms play dance music: the fast, repetitive beats not only get you in the rhythm of your workout, but keep the blood pumping harder. Try tracks such as Beyoncé and Jay Z’s Drunk in Love, One More Time by Daft Punk, and pretty much anything by Calvin Harris.
10am: The Big Meeting
Slip in your earbuds before that important conference and up your confidence levels with tracks with strong rhythms and empowering lyrics - think Kanye West’s Stronger, Eminem’s Not Afraid, and Sia’s Unstoppable to get you feeling pumped up and ready for anything.
3pm: Brainstorming a New Creative Concept
This is where personal taste plays a part. While a study called Is Noise Always Bad? Exploring the Effects of Ambient Noise on Creative Cognition showed that gentle ambient music, such as tracks by Brian Eno or The Orb, can boost creativity, for others, the key to getting the ideas flowing is to listen to ‘‘happy’’ tracks. Irma Jarvela at the University of Helsinki believes positive music releases the creativity-boosting neurotransmitter dopamine. “Dopamine also increases creative thinking and goal-directed working,” she says. So, time for some Pharrell Williams?
6pm: Socializing with Friends
On your way to after-work drinks? Get yourself in the right mood with a selection of your old-skool favourites – even better if the songs have some personal connection with those you are about to meet. A 2009 study by the University of California found that brain regions linked to autobiographical memories and emotions are activated by familiar music. “What seems to happen is that a piece of familiar music serves as a soundtrack for a mental movie that starts playing in our head. It calls back memories of a particular person or place, and you might all of a sudden see that person's face in your mind's eye,” says Petr Janata, associate professor of psychology at the university.
9pm: Relaxing with a Partner
Enough of the up-tempo stuff now. Curling up on the sofa or sharing a cosy dinner with your loved one means gentle, unobtrusive background music. The calmer the music, the more emotionally open you’ll feel together. According to psychologist and stress specialist Dr David Lewis: “Brain-imaging studies have shown that music works at a very deep level within the brain, stimulating not only those regions responsible for processing sound but also ones associated with emotions.”
10:30pm: Time for Bed
Finish the day with something deeply relaxing to help you drift off. According to a study by the Mindlab Institution, the eight-minute long 2011 track Weightless by Marconi Union is officially the most relaxing song ever, with the song’s flowing harmonies, soft chimes and heartbeat-replicating rhythms reducing levels of stress and anxiety in a group of 40 volunteers. Sweet dreams!