Taking Control of Your Emotional Playlist with Music Minus Words

Depression Coping Songs

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.

Author: Bruce Cantwell

Writer, journalist and long-time mindfulness practitioner.