If you’re one of the several hundred million people who recently watched season four of the Netflix smash hit “Stranger Things,” chances are good that you have found yourself humming Kate Bush’s 1985 ballad “Running Up That Hill” more than once since the viewing. We won’t spoil the plot of the season, don’t worry, but suffice it to say the song plays an instrumental role for a certain character whose favorite tune is “Running Up That Hill.”
In fact, the song creates a life-or-death level of motivation.
While your own favorite music may not have literally saved your life, chances are good that you have many times experienced music as a proverbial life saver.
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How many times have you turned up the volume on a “pump up” song to inspire you keep pushing through a run, a ride, or a workout? How much more pleasurable is it to clean the garage or do the dishes or rake the yard when you’ve got a great playlist going? How many times has the right song soothed your very heart when you were awash in sadness?
Our favorite songs genuinely can motivate us, and the way music motivates is not merely mental, it’s physiological, too.
Favorite Music Can Boost Energy and Endurance
Did you know that athletes in competition are often banned from listening to music? In professional sports, experts believe the edge a motivating song gives to one athlete may prove unfair in much the same way as illegal steroids may help a runner or a hidden motor may help a cyclist. How can music give us this jolt of energy endurance that may be outlawed in competitive sports but ever so welcome during an everyday workout – or simply in everyday life?
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When a favorite song comes on, it can stimulate the body’s sympathetic nervous system. This is the system that goes into higher gear when you are thrust into a stressful, challenging “fight or flight” situation. The airways open, the heartrate quickens, and extra blood flows to the muscles; your body is primed to perform at its best. And that performance can come in the form of extra reserves of speed, strength, and endurance that can be a benefit in sports and fitness, but it transcends that, as well.
Your Favorite Music Can Soothe and Calm
A musically-inspired boost to the nervous system can also inspire you to remain productive through the end of a long workday or study session, to keep alert as you finish an all-day drive, or to see the light at the end of the tunnel in a depressing time in your life. But music can also inspire a mental and emotional state quite different from that type of motivation. The right song can do this by activating another part of the autonomic nervous system, the parasympathetic nervous system, which takes us into a state quite opposite “fight or flight.”
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In fact, when the parasympathetic nervous system is in charge, we move toward a state often called “rest and digest,” or relaxed and tranquil, in other words. Just as one song can motivate you to action – say, “Shipping Up to Boston” by the Dropkick Murphys – another favorite piece of music can help you achieve a state of calmness and serenity.
Music Releases a “Feel Good” Hormone
You know that sensation of happiness and the little surge of energy you get from a piece of candy, a funny joke, or a partner’s kiss? Music can create those feelings, too, because those feelings are a direct result of your brain releasing a bit of dopamine, a so-called “feel good” hormone.
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And when you feel better, when you get a little emotional and energetic boost, you can keep on pressing harder and longer. That’s whether your goal is one more mile on a run, one more page of that term paper written, 10 more emails read and replied to for work, or just to keep your chin up and get through the rest of a perfectly rotten day.
Why Do Some Songs Become Our Favorites?
Not just any song can give you the motivation to finish that marathon, crack those books, or stay the course on a bear of a work project. (Try cranking up Lou Bega’s “Mambo No. 5” at mile 24 and you might just quit the race, right?) Different people respond to different music, with some tunes hitting some ears – or brains, more to the point – in just the right way even though others may find that same music uninteresting or even unpleasant.
In order for a song to become one of your favorites – and in so doing become a potential source of motivation – first and foremost it has to sound good based on your personal taste. If you grew up listening to hip hop, chances are your favorite music will be from that genre. If you came of age listening to what we now call classic rock, same story. Our favorite songs usually are ones we connect not just with the actual piece of music, but that also connect to our lives in some way, with the songs best enjoyed in youth often remaining lifelong favorites.
Within a preferred genre, a few songs will stand out to you because you appreciate the patterns found in the music. Humans are hard-wired to seek out and appreciate predictable patterns, which is why almost all songs have choruses that repeat. Your brain looks forward to anticipating the beat, the melody, the rhythm, and the lyrics and experiences a pleasurable payoff when the anticipated notes and words arrive. And the more times we repeatedly listen to favorite songs, the more familiar they become; this makes us appreciate them more, not grow tired of the music, in most cases.
And finally, hearing your favorite songs stimulates a neurologic circuit in the brain called the medial limbic system, according to Psychology Today, that elevates your mood. It’s not entirely clear whether this is because the music connects your mind to past memories, because it creates new connections within the brain, or both, but it’s safe to say that once a song has earned a spot on your personal top five or top 10 chart – especially if it’s the #1 spot – that tune can create genuine inspiration and motivation when you need it.