Taking Control of Your Emotional Playlist with Music Minus Words

Music has charms to soothe the savage breast. It seems reasonable that it also has potential to help us cope with depression.

The podcast The Hilarious World of Depression, where comedians discuss “the old Clinny D” with host John Moe, recently shared two between-season “placebo” editions where listeners offered up their favorite coping songs.

Volume One (16:06), and Volume Two (21:50), are both worthwhile if you can spare more than ten minutes. Listeners share both their songs and the reason they’re helpful. Because musical taste and forms of depression are so personal, coping songs are difficult to prescribe, but here are some suggestions to help you take control of your emotional playlist.

Environmental Music

One December afternoon, as I waited in line to buy some wooden hangers, the woman the cashier was ringing up went ballistic. She insisted that the cashier give her the violent computer games she was purchasing at half off because the signage had been misleading. I found myself growing agitated, but couldn’t figure out why.

Then, it dawned on me. The store’s speakers were piping in Andy Williams’s “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year.” This was the third time that day I had been subjected to holiday songs! The first had been in a veterinarian’s waiting room, the second had been in an urgent care waiting room, now I was stuck in line. I’ve never listened to these songs in a situation where I wouldn’t rather be doing something else.
Once I recognized this as a source of agitation, I was able to breathe through it and smile when I reached the cashier who said, “Thank you for your patience.”

A listener on the coping songs podcast said that sometimes cheerfulness when you’re in the middle of depression feels like steel wool on your skin. Since music can trigger unintended emotions, I try to be careful around environmental music that I can’t control.

I still listen to recorded music sometimes, as I mentioned in “Making Community Happen,” but I don’t turn on the radio, podcasts, or streaming services around the house or when I get in the car.
When I write, I listen to a playlist I choose to effect specific emotions without lyrics.

Major and Minor Emotions

A common criterion cited for selecting coping songs was finding something that acknowledged strong, painful emotions. In classical music, the most reliable indicators I use for emotional guidance are major and minor keys.      

The second movement of Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 (C minor) is melancholy while Mozart’s Piano Sonata No. 16 (C major) is cheerful.

Christian Schubart’s 1806 mood analysis of the musical keys described C minor as “declaration of love and at the same time the lament of unhappy love. All languishing, longing, sighing of the love-sick soul lies in this key.” By contrast, C major is “completely pure. Its character is: innocence, simplicity, naïvety, children’s talk.”

For a dose of “deep depression, funereal lament, groans of misery and longing for the grave,” Schubart suggests F minor. Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony is one of my favorites for this form of depression. If you need to restore a little “complaisance and calm,” try “Autumn,” from Antonio Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons in F major.

One counterintuitive thing about music in minor keys that aligns well with the coping song selections is how surprisingly comforting they can be. Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony is in D minor, but its fourth movement, “The Ode to Joy,” may be the most emotionally uplifting piece of art man has ever created.

Emotional Temp Tracks

Film directors use temporary music tracks to inspire them while editing a film. Stanley Kubrick’s temporary track for 2001: A Space Odyssey worked so well with his images that when Alex North scored the film, Kubrick decided not to use it. Because of that, from 1896 to 1968, the introduction to Richard Strauss’s tone poem Also Sprach Zarathustra, was known as “Sunrise.” Since 1968, it’s been known as “Theme from 2001: A Space Odyssey.”

Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 stuck in my memory as an example of C minor’s “declaration of love and at the same time the lament of unhappy love” because it was used as the score for Brief Encounter: a film about a British housewife who temporarily finds true romance outside her marriage, but decides to stay in the marriage because she’s frightened by genuine passion.

When I’m working on rewrites for a novel, I follow the film director’s lead and put together a temp score playlist. I lean heavily on film scores for this because film composers channel all their formal musical education whenever they have to create the mood for a specific moment. Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring contains many moods, but I’ll never forget the way John Williams channeled it for the shark’s theme in Jaws.

By listening to the playlist each time I write, I strengthen the association between the emotion these pieces created in their original context and the specific scenes I’m working to create. I’m not sure why this works as well as it does, but it’s the quickest, most effective way I know to remind me of what each scene needs to do and how it relates to the piece as a whole.

Since the coping song podcast listeners often cited tunes that reminded them they’d known better times and would know them again, I can see how something that conveys emotion as directly as music can be a big help in strengthening resilience.

Ten Minute Exercise
  1. Set a timer for ten minutes.
  2. Classical route: peruse Christian Schubart’s list of affective musical key characteristics. Type the corresponding key into Wikipedia, scroll down to the well-known compositions for that key, and jot down a list of promising titles.
    Movie soundtrack route: start with imdb.com to search for films that resonate. You can use the “People Who Like This Also Liked” feature to make a list of similar movies.
  3. Enter classical titles or film names followed by “soundtrack” into YouTube and add them to a playlist. I like using YouTube for initial exploration because after a few searches, it starts offering helpful suggestions.
  4. Stop when the timer sounds and see what you have.
  5. In future ten-minute sessions, test your playlist and refine as necessary.

Once you find musical pieces that resonate with your emotions, you can assemble a more permanent, portable playlist in the format of your choice for future rainy days.

Forest Therapy – A Natural Antidepressant


Forest Park Bench
An inviting bench in Forest Park

I was thinking of activities that can work as a natural antidepressant when an NPR Morning Edition story caught my ear: “Forest Bathing: A Retreat to Nature Can Boost Immunity and Mood” by Allison Aubrey. The Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries coined the term Shinrin-yoku in the early 1990s, and evidence of its benefits to physical and mental health has been accumulating ever since.

The Shinrin-yoku organization website lists studies that suggest “forest bathing” can improve mood and lead to an overall increase of happiness. Another measurable benefit is stress relief.

This doesn’t surprise me. On my daily walk, whenever I’m not running an errand, I try to access one of my neighborhood parks to walk beneath a canopy of mature trees. My stress level automatically decreases when I’m in a park because I don’t have to worry about checking for vehicles every time I cross a street. If I stay on the wood chip path for runners and walkers, I cyclists won’t hit me either. Two of the parks I visit most often have off-leash dog areas, and the enthusiasm of dogs at play can be infectious. That’s always a mood booster. The scent, the essential oils the trees give off, is also beneficial.

When I’m not enjoying my locally walkable green space, I often visit Portland’s urban oasis Forest Park. On my most recent trip, I decided to try a few of the forest therapy invitations that I received when I signed up for the newsletter at shinrin-yoku.org.

Ten Minute Exercises

One exercise that I’ve actually done before is compatible with hiking. It’s called “Pleasures of Presence.” As you move through the forest, let your thoughts go and tune in to your sensory experience. This time around, I was conscious of the way the light looked as it filtered through the trees. I breathed in the scent of the Pacific Northwest, noticing how that scent changed with the species of the trees and other flora. I felt the changing temperature of sunshine and shade on the exposed skin of my face and arms. I listened to the trees as they creaked back and forth on the wind.

Swaying in the breeze

I didn’t stick out my tongue to taste the forest, but a couple weeks ago, I drank a bit of Forest Park in the form of a brew inspired by a Beers Made by Walking hike.

An exercise that I don’t experience while hiking but wanted to try is called “What’s in Motion.” For this one, I had to stop and observe how the forest around me continued to move. I paid attention to what’s in motion nearby, in the distance, and noted the variation. The idea is to rediscover the pace of nature. One of the creatures in motion nearby was a butterfly. It lit on a stretch of sun-bathed vegetation a few feet away. I took out my camera, and it flew away. It flew a specific flight pattern and returned to the same spot. Then, it took off again, joined another butterfly in an aerial dance, ascended to the tree tops, and returned yet again. I snapped this photo somewhere around its fifth or sixth return.

Butterfly really likes this foliage

The Return

Shortly before looping back to my starting point, I paused to spend a slow motion moment with a banana slug. Hikers are wary of stepping on these because they’re slimy and hard to clean off your boots. They’re also a convenient metaphorical reminder to slow down when you’re in the forest and take the time to immerse yourself.

banana slug
I’m moving as fast as I can!

I was glad that I’d taken the time to try these exercises and look forward to incorporating more natural antidepressant immersions into my future forest excursions.

Making Community Happen

This year, I felt closer than usual to people experiencing Seasonal Affective Disorder. According to Oregon Public Broadcasting, we had the wettest winter in our community since 1895.

The rain didn’t keep me from getting outside for my daily walk, but I crossed paths with far fewer of my fellow Portlanders than usual: mostly hard core runners who often had pained expressions on their faces and dog owners who couldn’t wait for their pets to do their business so they could go back inside.

Summer Free for All

That’s why Portland’s annual Summer Free for All is essential this year.

The collaboration between Portland Parks and Recreation and 71 community organizations brings free lunches, climbing walls, concerts, and movies to the parks almost every day in July and August.

Most of the year, I don’t make an effort to go hear live music, but I attend every concert at my local Fernhill Park no matter what’s on offer. This year the lineup includes:

  • Tony Starlight (Music, laughter, from Sinatra to the 80s)
  • Edna Vazquez Band (Sensational Latin alternative w/ folkloric roots)
  • Farnell Newton & The Othership Connection (Funk, soul w/ a twist)
  • Robin Jackson & The Caravan (Folk cabaret, gypsy-tinged pop)
  • Colectivo Son Jarocho de Portland (Traditional Afro-Mexican folk)

Music in other parks includes: New Orleans Jazz, reggae, West African, Somali, salsa, Mexican folk, zydeco, Beatles covers, South American cumbias, Cuban, Tongan, Native American, and symphonic.

It’s not the music, but what the music does that counts. It draws people out of their homes to come together in their parks, see friends, have family picnics, and throw frisbees. Uninhibited children and unselfconscious adults get up and dance.

Edna Vasquez Band at Fernhill Community Concert
Everybody Dance Now

If you see me dancing, something’s gone horribly wrong, but you might catch me practicing one of these

Ten Minute Well-Being Exercises

Shared Joy

We often unconsciously pick up on the vibe around us. Hanging around negative people can bring us down. Hanging around happy people, if we’re careful not to resent their being happier than we are, can lighten our mood. Everyone faces challenges. It’s beneficial to acknowledge joy, anybody’s joy, whenever the opportunity arises.

Friendly Intentions

We begin by wishing ourselves a state of well-being, the determination to achieve our potential, the resilience to cope with the normal stresses of life, the opportunity to work productively and fruitfully, and the generosity to make a contribution to our community. We extend that wish to our friends and loved ones, then to others in the community whom we may or may not know. We can shift our attention from person to person in the crowd to practice this. It doesn’t magically create a sense of well-being, but it helps weaken self-centeredness and isolation. It produces a mindset conducive to pursuing well-being.


Take a moment to peruse this list of events. Each one took a tremendous amount of effort by Portland Parks and Recreation, local business sponsors, volunteers from neighborhood organizations, and individual supporters to bring about. The parks themselves are the legacy of those who set aside highly valuable real estate for us to enjoy. I’m very grateful that these events come together every year.


During intermission, volunteers circulate through the audience with watering cans and buckets to offer folks the chance to make individual contributions to their community events. It’s not required, but it’s a very simple way to feel good about giving back.

These events help change the definition of community from:

a group of people living in the same place
a feeling of fellowship with others

As the representative from Portland Parks and Recreation announced at the first Fernhill concert of the season, “We love to see community happen.”

Anti-Social Media and Social Comparison

The media has been selling social comparison for generations. Imagine it’s 1928 and you’re paging through the local gazette where you learn about a newly discovered medical condition.

Social Insecurity

No matter how charming you may be or how fond of you your friends are, you cannot expect them to put up with halitosis (unpleasant breath) forever. They may be nice to you–but it is an effort.

Listerine Halitosis ad from 1928

Read the Facts: 1/3 had halitosis. 68 hairdressers state that about every third woman, many of them from the wealthy classes, is halitoxic. Who should know better than they?

Recognizing these truths, nice people end any chance of offending by systematically rinsing the mouth with Listerine. Every morning. Every night. And between the times when necessary, especially before meeting others.

Social Comparison Sells

In her article “How Halitosis Became a Medical Condition With a ‘Cure’” Laura Clark writes, “Ultimately, the bad-breath campaign was so successful that marketing historians refer to it as the ‘halitosis appeal’—shorthand for using fear to sell product.”

Fear of TV

One evening I came home exhausted from my advertising job to watch the TV adaptation of Stephen King’s It. It aired during a Nielsen Ratings month so the miniseries benefited from heavy promotion. The hook for me was Tim Curry playing Pennywise, the killer clown.

Tim Curry as Pennywise
The scariest thing about Stephen King’s It was how bad it was.

I thought the show was lame. Whatever I imagined it would be, it turned out not to be. It wasn’t holding my attention, so I flipped the remote during the commercials hoping to find something better. As bad as It was, the shows on the other channels were worse.

I had no expectation that I was about to witness a moment of television that I would never forget.

I returned from one unsuccessful channel surfing commercial break to find Pennywise had morphed into a giant unterrifying sewer spider, and one of our lackluster heroes took aim at It with a makeshift slingshot. This was a moment of TV so bad I swore at the set and pulled the cord out of the wall. Enough!

Unplugging Social Comparison

The unintended consequences of my separation from commercial television surprised me.

I thought that I watched TV to relax, but I felt more relaxed without it. My paycheck hadn’t grown, but without constant reminders of things I couldn’t afford, I suddenly had enough money.

I worried that I might miss out on the next big whatever, but my co-workers kept plugged in, I heard it through the grapevine, without the commercials.

Social Media and Social Comparison

I felt a similar reduction of social insecurity and increased well-being when I pulled way back from social media.

“More and more studies suggest that electronic communication—unlike the face-to-face interaction it may replace—has negative consequences for mental health,” writes Jean Twenge in her Newsweek article about the 10th anniversary of the iPhone. “One study asked college students to report on their mood five times a day. The more they had used Facebook, the less happy they were. However, feeling unhappy didn’t lead to more Facebook use, which suggests that Facebook was causing unhappiness, not vice versa.”

Curating Your Life

As a recovering advertiser, I sometimes find it hard to resist Amazon’s share your purchase feature, which allows you to dazzle your friends by posting what you just bought. My most recent purchase was replacement bungee lacing to repair my zero gravity chair. Exciting, right?

Regular participation in social media requires a mindset of judging post-worthy events. Real-life friends may grow tedious in our eyes if they post things that irritate or bore us. We may grow self-conscious about our appearance sifting through photo after photo trying to find the one in which we look best. If we post about something that’s important to us and it doesn’t get enough likes or favorable comments, it might make us wonder about our friendships. And it’s hard to be fully present even in life’s happiest moments if we have to stop, snap a photo, and upload.

The only real winner here is the social media platform, which uses your relationships to turn your friendships into uncompensated sales pitches.

Take the Ten Minute Test

The next time you’re plugged in to media, social or otherwise, take ten minutes to consider whether the program you’re watching or posts the posts you’re reading make you feel more or less content with your quality of life. Ask whether they increase or diminish your satisfaction with the world around you.