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Finding Focus Through Music: A Review of ‘Your Playlist Can Change Your Life’

Craig FinnAs part of our stated remit of “teaching, technology, and productivity,” ProfHacker has always been all about the music. In addition to one editor’s fierce, quixotic love of The Hold Steady, we’ve had posts about relocation playlists, open calls about “what’s on your iPod?”, theme-song soundtracks, the soundtrack of the semester, and more. Beyond the strict confines of the blog, one of my favorite things about Brian has been his mp3 of the week series, in which he shared a track with his friends–a tradition that he and others have adapted for the hashtag moment with #dhmusic.

So you can imagine my interest when I learned of a new book about playlists and productivity: Your Playlist Can Change Your Life: 10 Proven Ways Your Favorite Music Can Revolutionize Your Health, Memory, Organization, Alertness, and More., by Galina Mindlin, Don Durousseau, and Josph Cardillo. The book asserts that new neuroscientific research offers tangible ways to manipulate your mood, focus, and other aspects of mental life.

Your Playlist Can Change Your Life shows the benefits of being even just slightly more mindful about our musical choices throughout the day. That mindfulness takes different forms: using guided imagery; focusing on (depending on the desired effect) lyrics or rhythm to change your mood; categorizing your music by beats per minute (BPM) to promote alertness or calm; using the ratings system in iTunes to quickly develop mood-specific playlists, and more.

The core insight of the book is that by training your mind to associate specific songs with desired emotional states, and by being attentive to the kinds of music that pick you up or calm you down, listening to music becomes a powerful tool for achieving happiness and productivity. This “training” needn’t take very long, either: You can realize the benefits just by paying a little bit more attention to your listening habits, and then being purposive in your selections a few times a week.

The book’s prose manages to convey the most overblown characteristics of three different self-help genres: mindfulness/meditation, corporate productivity, and popular science. It’s not hard to read, exactly, but it can be annoying:

The next song he has on his playlist is “So Long Astoria” by the Ataris. For him, it is the thick, distorted guitar playing again and the song’s 183 BPM that does it for him. He anticipates the crisp, snapping, warp-speed drum hits and raspy, melodic vocals jetting over them. He also anticipates the line, “Life is only as good as the memories we make.” He sings it in his head as he hears it. The line becomes a sort of mantra for him, a chant. The mix of music, his own voice, his expectations, and the song’s message help him synchronize the way he feels physically and mentally to the song’s powerful output and summon more positive energy from himself to get the job done.

This is perhaps the first book I’ve read and come away with the clear impression that it should have been a Kindle Single, rather than a book. In fact, Mindlin’s interview with the Smithsonian Magazine gives a pretty good preécis of the book’s argument: find songs that you like, listen to them mindfully (that is, trying to really notice how they make you feel), and practice associating songs with the desired outcome. Near the end of Your Playlist Can Change Your Life, the argument shifts from a general one about improving mood, and begins to advocate a specific commercial application, Brain Music Therapy, but that focuses on more specialized concerns, such as using music to treat headaches, or even AD/HD.

For an altogether different take on neuroscience and music, you might have a look at Josh Rothman’s recent post about how Masaki Batoh makes music from brainwaves.

Photo “The Hold Steady 071010″ by Flickr user Neff Conner / Creative Commons licensed BY-2.0

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