Make Music Functional: How Mixtapes and Playlists Set the Mood

The link between songs and states of mind

The introduction of the Sony Walkman is remembered as ushering in a new era of personal autonomy. With this new product came the evolution of personal media equipment in the 1980s, which allowed for constant background mood regulation. With some hours of effort, the consumer could curate and record a mixtape of selections from their personal collection of music. This could be random, or based on era, genre, mood or whatever you desired. This ability to manipulate your everyday background sounds and temper your own mood could function as an extension of self-care. The technology became a proponent of the 2,000-year-old Ancient Greek concept of philautia: self love or care, partially attained through controlling your aural surroundings.

Fast forward 30 years, and the average user has instant access to over 40 million songs. When was the last time you made a playlist? Never before in the history of mankind has such a swath of music options existed. We know music affects our emotional state, but have we unlocked the potential of our own curated playlists to achieve this function and goal?

I've had a lot of practice creating music solutions and tracks for ads, which requires finding music that correlates with specific moods. I've found that applying even the most basic knowledge about the science of music and mood can help strategically shift the mood of my clients' audience for the better. Extending the practice further, I think we can curate suites of songs to help others and ourselves feel better.

Let's go deeper: Knowing the science behind mood shifts triggered by songs can assist the listener in times of high stress and negativity (read: the last year and beyond). By no surprise, the right music can enhance the power of an ad's message and amplify its creative, improving the ad overall. Ernest Mas-Herrero, Alain Dagher and Robert J. Zatorre published findings in Nature providing evidence behind the cause of mood shifts when listening to music. Using a magnetic stimulation test, their study shows that when specific neural pathways are activated, "perceived pleasure, psychophysiological measures of emotional arousal, and the monetary value assigned to music, are all significantly increased ... whereas inhibition of this system leads to decreases in all of these variables." Herrero explains, "This indicates that the role of these [neural pathways] in learning and motivation may be indispensable for the experience of musical pleasure."

A similar study by Valerie Salimpoor noted, in National Geographic, that "when you listen to a song for the first time, the strength of certain neural connections can predict how much you like the music, and that these preferences are guided by what you've heard and enjoyed in the past."

Now we have some throughlines. Both studies state that music preference is based on the listener's reactions, and not just the music they listened to as kids. Years ago, I was officiating a wedding for the first time and felt anxious about the process. A friend in charge of the music playlist was careful to pick songs that could lift and set the mood of the ceremony. As soon as he hit play, Miles Davis swept away my nerves—the songs helped me relax in a supremely stressful place. With the ability to see and share playlists on streaming platforms like Spotify, individuals have similar power to help each other feel better with music. My co-workers were helped at the onset of the coronavirus pandemic by de-stress and chill playlists, using their personal choices to decide together which songs alleviate stress the best. And then, most importantly, they shared them. 

So, I propose: Make a playlist with the music's function in mind. Examples could be songs to cry to, songs that lift your spirits, tracks that get you motivated for the gym, or tranquil songs to help you relax. Share this playlist with your friends and family. Don't just make a list of songs you "like." Dig deeper, and find the songs that serve these states of mind. Return to this playlist and refine it as your selections improve and your tastes evolve. 

The practice offers at least two benefits. First, time spent curating the music will help you understand your tastes, and tune you into how music affects your mood. Second, you will have a personalized outcome to use again and again to bring your mind to your desired emotional place. Perhaps into 2021 and beyond, music can serve as the salve to help us all reach our individual states of philautia.

First Note is a Muse series about the transformative power of music and the artists, songs and albums that most influenced us. If you'd like to write for First Note, please get in touch.

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Tim Kvasnosky
Tim Kvasnosky is executive creative director LA at Butter Music + Sound.

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