“Music is the strongest form of magic,” Marilyn Manson once said. Does it sound far-fetched? Actually, he was more right than he knew. Music works magic on your mood.
I bet you’ve experienced this yourself: A song comes on the radio, and suddenly you’re either an emotional wreck or jazzed up and ready to take on the world (it’s rarely both at the same time). Music can make you feel sad, happy, tense, or excited. It can even get people flocking to the dance floor to do the synchronized routine from the latest pop track…or so I’ve heard.
In short, music affects how you feel.
It’s not just me saying it, by the way. Scientists agree. They even have research to back it up. Some studies had volunteers listen to music while measuring their breathing rates, blood pressure, and heart rate changes. Guess what? Music affects all of those, which in turn affects your mood. That does sound a bit like magic, doesn’t it?
You can find music for any occasion
But here’s the thing: Just because music can elicit emotions, it doesn’t mean that every piece of music triggers the same feelings in every person. A song you want to dance to may be one that makes me nostalgic and melancholic. That’s not to say it’s completely impossible to find tracks that most people can agree on. In the words of Dr. Witchel, who studies music and its effects:
“We had a devil of a time finding pieces of music that almost everyone could agree on. Such pieces are fabulously rare.”
Rare? Yes. But such songs do exist. For instance, “I’m a Believer” by The Monkeys was found to make practically everyone happy, while Barber’s Adagio for Strings gets everyone down. (Note to self: Adagio for Strings is not a great party track.)
Now that we know this, is it possible to handpick some tunes you can use to get in whatever mood you wish?
Yup, it is. Let’s give it a go:
Workout music has to hit the right tempo
Quick! Think of a training montage video. What track is playing in the background?
There’s a pretty good chance you just thought of the famous Rocky scene – and now you have “Eye of the Tiger” stuck in your head. Sorry about that!
It’s no accident that we associate upbeat songs with getting in shape. We need music that gets our heart pumping when we’re out for a run or lifting weights. Predictably, studies suggest that great workout music should closely match the intensity of your workout. For strength training, pick songs that have 110-130 beats per minute. Power walking? Turn it up to 140 BPM. Once you start running or cycling, you’ll want to aim for the 140-170 BPM range.
But the right tempo alone is hardly enough. You have to actually like the song itself. Yeah, no big surprise there. Try to go for songs with lyrics you find motivating or that trigger positive memories.
Am I saying you have to memorize the BPM values of all your favorite songs? Nope. Here, have a look at this awesome song browser. You can find tracks with specific BPM values or pick a song you like and find out how many beats per minute it has. Neat, huh?
Ready? Set. Go!
Music helps you focus when it’s subtle
Do you listen to music while studying or working on your computer? Not everyone will give the same answer. Some of us prefer to work in total silence; we don’t want any sounds distracting us. Others can’t seem to get anything done without some cool tracks playing in their headphones.
What does science say on the matter? Here’s what: Music can definitely help you be more productive. You just need to know what to look for. If you’re working on repetitive tasks that aren’t too demanding – like copy-pasting text or making origami flamingos out of napkins – listen to music you enjoy. You’ll likely get more stuff done faster and be in a better mood.
But as soon as you need to use your brain and get creative, music selection gets a bit trickier. Music you like can actually backfire. It’s kind of hard to concentrate when you’re singing along to that catchy chorus you know so well. That’s why scientists recommend songs you haven’t heard before or ones you don’t really care much about.
Better yet, listen to songs with no lyrics at all. Speech is distracting. An instrumental track with some peaceful sounds of nature can do wonders to really get you in the zone. Aim for songs with a relatively slow tempo – about 60 beats per minute should do it.
Remember to play tracks at medium volume. You want your music to protect you from ambient noise, but you don’t want it becoming a source of noise itself. While you’re at it, get a noise-cancelling headset that blocks outside noise and creates a bubble of quiet around you.
Here’s a great collection of tracks that help you focus. Enjoy!
Need to relax? Soothing music to the rescue.
This is it. You’ve had a productive day at work and then ran five miles out in the park. Now it’s time to kick back and get some well-deserved rest. Are there any songs out there to help you wind down?
There sure are.
For starters, there’s the most relaxing tune in the world. That’s pretty much exactly what it is. Science says so. “Weightless,” an ambient instrumental track by Marconi Union, is guaranteed to make you very, very drowsy.
Warning: The track is so effective at inducing sleep that researchers caution against listening to it while driving a car. Seriously. People have shown a whopping 65 percent decline in anxiety after hearing “Weightless.” So if you need to calm your stressed-out brain, you know where to start.
Of course, “Weightless” is far from the only sleepy song out there. In fact, the track was carefully crafted using scientific principles for the specific purpose of relaxing people. Any song that uses some of these tricks can work. What are the tricks? I’ll let Lyz Cooper, founder of the British Academy of Sound Therapy, summarize:
“[The song] contains a sustaining rhythm that starts at 60 beats per minute and gradually slows to around 50. While listening, your heart rate gradually comes to match that beat. It is important that the song is eight minutes long because it takes about five minutes for this process, known as entrainment, to occur. The fall in heart rate also leads to a fall in blood pressure. The harmonic intervals – or gaps between notes – have been chosen to create a feeling of euphoria and comfort. And there is no repeating melody, which allows your brain to completely switch off because you are no longer trying to predict what is coming next. Instead, there are random chimes, which helps to induce a deeper sense of relaxation. The final element is the low, whooshing sounds and hums that are like buddhist chants. High tones stimulate but these low tones put you in a trance-like state.”
Here’s an article that suggests you spend at least 45 minutes listening to calming music for it to really take effect. It recommends Native American, Celtic, or Indian stringed-instruments tracks with drums and flutes. Light jazz, classical, or easy listening music mixed with sounds of nature like rain and thunder can work wonders, too.
There are a few specific tracks to help you get started here and here, so you can pick the music you like best. So switch on your favorite music headset or Bluetooth speaker, switch off your brain, and let the music gently rock you to sleep.