Turn it Up: Why Music Can Make You Happy

Music junkies rejoice! There are mood-enhancing benefits to being slaves to the rhythm

Whenever scientists tout the medical and mental health benefits of something we’re already addicted to -- like coffee or dark chocolate -- I want to sing a little aria. And, now I know why. According to the three psychologist-authors of a new book, Your Playlist Can Change Your Life, everyone can benefit from a little makeshift music therapy, which can lift our mood, reduce anxiety, raise motivation, help us work out better and even fight depression and insomnia. No drugs necessary; just a little strategic iPod shuffling.

As explained in this Los Angeles Times article, music -- just like sex, drugs or mouthwatering cuisine -- causes the brain to release dopamine, the “feel good” brain chemical that’s key to addiction, depression and motivation. Brain Music Therapy (usually coupled with dance) is often prescribed to stroke survivors or patients with Parkinson’s Disease or clinical insomnia. But think how the average frazzled woman could harness that momentary burst of awesome musical power to become a happier and more productive person. It all starts with the BPM (or, beats per minute).

Slow songs that roll along at a languid 50-60 BPM, might be best for relaxing after a stressful day at work or when the kids make you pull your hair. On the other side, the 140-150 bpm range (think Michael Jackson’s “Beat It”) can put you into fight-or-flight mode perfect for pumping yourself up for a big meeting or workout. But beyond the beat, is the song's context and emotional connection. Says co-author Galina Mindlin, MD, PhD, 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." Also worth noting is that a song can be upbeat yet still be relaxing, especially if the lyrics have meaning or vivid imagery; or if you can isolate some of the instrumentation (say, a note held by a lonely violin, or the amped-up staccato of a drum solo). 

Basically, if your hearing is intact, it's hard to not be touched by some form of music. Even listening to the rhythmic sounds of the ocean lets you reach what the authors call a state of "flow," a sense of extreme calmness that is also highly productive. So it makes sense that whatever music moves you most can actually elevate you if played at the right time.

It might be time to break out my old metronome and start creating Mood Lists based on BPM. 

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