Skip to main content

For the past three years, I have created a new playlist at the beginning of the year. Creating a playlist at the start of each year and adding songs over the next 365 days has helped me tell the story of my life that year—and it’s another great way to start the year fresh on January 1st. As it turns out, what I thought was just a fun tradition has some positive psychological effects.

In Psychology Today, athlete, author, and public health advocate Christopher Bergland suggests making a list of your top ten favorite songs in a year. This practice, he says, helps to promote the positive emotions you associate with that music. In this way “you can permanently imprint these memories like a time capsule of … people, places and events.”

He also suggests making a playlist with songs that show respect to the more difficult moments of your year, yet also provide silver linings. Taylor Swift’s pop song “Shake it Off” comes to mind as a great break-up song. She sings, “But I keep cruising, can’t stop, won’t stop moving / It’s like I got this music in my mind, sayin’ it’s gonna be alright.” It is definitely an angsty song, but the rhythm and beat of the chorus make you want to move your feet. Even if your original reason for listening to it was less than positive, it’s one of those songs that you can belt out at the top of your lungs, break out all of your best moves to, and walk off the dance floor smiling.

Bergland also notes that when a song is overplayed you can “dilute” your original memory of it by associating it with too many new memories. Think of it like a scent: People often choose a honeymoon perfume and cologne and only re-apply it for special occasions like their anniversaries or special vacations. He says, “If you want a song to have an emotional impact linked to a specific person, place, or experience from your past, listen to it sparingly and make it part of a time capsule memory vault that you consciously preserve.”

Creating Your Memory Playlist

What does it mean to have a playlist for your year? Think of it as your own personal soundtrack to your life—a way to look back in time and recall memories based on music.

The first year I created a playlist I added a lot of music from Leon Bridges: I remember basking in his soul music while I cooked a fine meal, swaying to the melody of “River.” My 2016 playlist includes some Selena Gomez, which reminds me of late night dance parties with my roommates. 2017 is marked by the Chainsmokers—their song “Closer” brings me back to hitting the floor at my wedding reception. So far in 2018, Kenny Chesney’s song “Get Along” reminds me of laughing in the car with my husband as we try to make the best of our frequent road trips. My husband can start singing that song when I’m having a bad day, and whether I like it or not a smile always appears on my face.

What’s crazy is that whether or not a given song is one of your favorites, it can bring to the forefront of your mind a favorite memory. We often experience music in social settings, and thus it can be a social experience. We focus on music while out dancing or going to concerts, but we listen more passively when we hear it lingering in the background at a dinner party or while watching a movie in the theater. While we have those experiences, our memories of the place and people are being stored alongside the music in our minds.

Even a sad song can do this. Great lyrics or not, sad song or happy, sweet-summer country or angsty pop, it is not necessarily the genre which evokes a feeling, it’s the time and place in which we heard the song. A sad song can make us feel happy or a happy song might make us feel sad.

For example, when I was a poolside waitress at a country club, the cook used to play the Spice Girls song “Wannabe” when the lunch or dinner rush got especially stressful, and it brought sweet relief to all of us hustling in the kitchen. That song became our inner-kitchen’s code for “Everything is going to be alright. This is really overwhelming, but we can take a breath and have fun in the moment. We will laugh about it later.” That was more than five years ago, and to this day I still think about those summer service rushes with my co-workers.

The songs I pull out from the memory vault of my junior and senior high school years are from the bands Cake, Weezer, and the Killers. (As I was growing up, my older brothers were big fans of alternative rock, so I tried to impress them by cultivating a liking for their favorite bands.) The summer of my junior year I took up running, and when I hear certain songs by Cake I can still see the houses I used to run past near my childhood home. Sweat from the summer sun would be pouring down my face, but the adrenaline rush coming through my headphones kept me motivated.

2019 will be here before we know it. Consider curating your own 2019 playlist filled with good vibes and uplifting ballads. Then, in 2020, take a look at your playlist, re-listen to the songs (but not too many times), and find out for yourself what memories have been stored in your music memory vault.