Music Can Help You Reach Your Goals–But Only If You Choose the Right Songs

Science says your playlist can prime you for success.
Published March 25, 2019

Do you have a song that helps you sail through creative tasks, helps you focus, or maybe even just makes you feel happy? You are not alone. “Music is so universal and so timeless that the evidence is overwhelming that it has a place simply in building a healthy and happy life,” says Stephan Quentzel, MD, the medical director of the Louis Armstrong Center for Music and Medicine at Mount Sinai Beth Israel in New York City.


Songs can generate a rapid emotional response that can be channeled according to prior associations with that song, says Dr. Quentzel. Brain-imaging studies have found that favorite songs tap into brain circuitry involved in empathy, internally focused thought, and self-awareness.


Listening to familiar songs has an additional benefit: We often sing along to them, helping to prime our brains for action. “Even if we’re not singing out loud, the singing in our minds is a form of movement,” explains Petr Janata, PhD, a professor of psychology at the Center for Mind and Brain at the University of California, Davis.




Tune in to your body



Music affects the brain. “Music is a powerful instigator in turning on and keeping an active brain. And an active brain is better suited for motivation, and concentration, and problem solving—and positive emotions and positive relationships,” says Dr. Quentzel.


When it comes to motivation, the brain’s entire frontal lobe is involved in getting us to act, explains Janata. “Even if it’s unfamiliar music, if we’re liking it, we’re motivated by the music—and that can motivate us to act in general.”


Take time to notice how a particular piece of music makes you feel, says Dr. Quentzel. “If we stop and reflect on how we respond—what is different music doing for different purposes—we probably can marshal the powers of music to be more effective.”


Through a process known as brainwave entrainment, music has been shown to play a role in regulating or stimulating our bodies’ internal rhythms, such as heart rate, blood pressure, and the sleep/wake cycle. “A great many songs of the body, the frequencies and the rhythms, can be managed by tuning your internal experience to the external music. And that can be useful, as well, in getting the most out of your mind and getting the most out of your body,” explains Dr. Quentzel.


Dr. Quentzel suggests working with a music therapist or music psychotherapist who can create an individual plan for your health and wellness goals. Or, you can create your own playlist to get yourself into the right frame of mind, whatever your goal.




Pick the right tunes



We all experience music differently; when deciding on your playlist, focus on what’s important to you, says Janata. For some people, the lyrics of a song are most important—for instance, the words to “Fight Song” by Rachel Platten might motivate you to take control at the gym, at work, or in a relationship—for others, the rhythm of a song may matter more.


Choose songs that you like, not just ones that are popular. In a brain-imaging study of 27 participants published in PLOS One, songs the participants disliked failed to activate their brains.


To make up your playlist based on your needs, consider these suggestions:


When you want to feel powerful choose music with more bass, according to research from Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University in Evanston, IL.


To boost self-confidence, choose music that has positive, joyful, or upbeat associations, suggests Dr. Quentzel.


To put your workout into high gear, or for motivation to complete a task, focus on rhythm. “If you want to get moving, you should find music that has a good beat, has good tempo and is basically high in groove—groove being the urge for you to move in response to music,” says Janata.


Choosing a playlist to reduce stress depends on how you like to de-stress, says Janata. “If your way of managing stress is to calm down, getting yourself into a calmer head space, then you want slower-tempo music,” he says. “If part of your strategy for dealing with stress is reveling in nostalgia, and that’s a source of comfort, then you’d want to emphasize songs from your past that [provide] comforting memories.”



Regardless of who creates your playlists, if you haven’t incorporated music into your wellness repertoire already, it might be time you tune in to the benefits. “I do think it’s valuable to have these music soundtracks that can help put us into a psychological state that we want to be in,” says Janata. “I would certainly encourage people who haven’t thought about doing that to give it a try.”