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Do you sing at stoplights, but more importantly, what's on your playlist?
From Olympians to refugees, the lyrics matter
At stoplights, during the pandemic, if you happened to be at the same light as us, you would have seen me and my little family rocking out to This Is Me and other clutch songs from The Greatest Showman soundtrack.
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It was the theme song for our life at the time.
Especially those first few tense weeks when everything was shut down and the most you could do was hit up a drive through, we rocked out in traffic. There were arm movements, there were head bobs, there were lung-crushing, Michael-Bolton-level long notes.
To this day, whenever I hear the lilting piano notes of that song, before a single heart-wrenching lyric, a world of memories flings open.
How your playlist shapes your output
I stumbled across an interesting case study about the power of music in some research on brands this week. Samsung Galaxy and Optus (a mobile phone provider in Australia) explored the ways music helps to enhance performance for athletes.
Researchers of both athletes and music studied the relationship between performance and song, a connection called entrainment, “the tendency of biological rhythms—heart rate, respiration rate, even brain waves—to align with musical rhythms.”
It puts athletes into a focused, even inspired, zone.
The Tokyo Olympics were the first games to feature no cheering throngs. Athletes didn’t have the built-in performance boost that comes from a live audience. So, Samsung partnered with researchers and scientists to see if they could do something to enhance performance instead.
They worked from the premise that music is like a legal drug for athletes. Then, they created personalized songs for Olympians to bolster performance:
Every beat, lyric, instrument and artist was chosen to match the athlete's desired mind-state, event, and musical preference. To further enhance performance, we tested and fine-tuned 13 audio-triggers, including isochronic tones, personal mantras, cadence and more. We then brought the tracks to life with their favourite Australian artist. Athletes used their tracks to prepare and compete in Tokyo while the world listened along on Spotify. Armed with Performance Enhancing Music, the Australian Olympic team matched their best-ever medal haul at an Olympics.
In preparation for Paris 2024, the Australian Ministry of Sport is in talks to explore how this musical strategy can help with their next medal haul at the Summer games.
The process they undertook is fascinating, and is captured in this video:
While the quote above may overstate the impact of their work (I checked the results of the three athletes featured in the video; one of the three medalled1), the study reveals the power of music to influence outlook and to spur people on.
If you’re interested, check out the behind-the-scenes details of how they created music for each athlete, which is truly fascinating.
How life’s experiences shape your heart’s music
Music also helps people to name and move through trauma.
Kazi Farzana studied ways refugees preserve memories of home and share cultural identity through music. Farzana did an in-the-field study of Rohingya refugees denied access to UNHCR displacement camps in Bangladesh, despite being legitimate refugees and in grave danger.
While illiterate, these refugees establish community and retain cultural identity through shared stories that are artifacts of great trauma. These tarana (sung poems) serve as a fascinating examples of how music helps people process grief.2
Here are lyrics from one song of lament sung by refugees in Bangladesh who fled violence in Myanmar:
We have become refugees
Oh God, forgiving and merciful
We are in exile
We have become refugees
For how long will you keep us in this mountain caves
For how long will you make us eaten by insects
We remained adrift suffering from tortures
Oh God make our country peaceful if you wish 3
This song, in particular, mourns the displacement of a family forced into exile and separation from the homeland. It marks multiple traumas both within the homeland and in their state of permanent displacement. Repeated three times, the appeal to God for peace and relief indicates there is no temporal relief or social mechanism, such as a public justice system, by which the exiles can make a case for their rights.
As they seek and await justice, music is a way to remember and lament the loss of home, and, in some ways, to account for traumas suffered.
Psalms and songs
The modern day laments of Rohingya that emerge from a single thumbtack of injustice among thousands that pierce the map of this world, remind me of the Psalms. The beloved book is a collection of songs and poems, so many of them strummed out by David at moments of ecstasy or despair.
A favourite of mine is Psalm 40, which opens with:
I waited patiently for the Lord;
he turned to me and heard my cry.
He lifted me out of the slimy pit,
out of the mud and mire;
he set my feet on a rock
and gave me a firm place to stand.
U2 brought the Psalm to life in a memorable way with their song “40”:
The importance of naming and playing the theme song of your life (right now)
You may not be a high performance athlete or fleeing unthinkable trauma. But you may be reaching a personal high or scraping your knuckles on a life low.
So, what’s the theme song of your life right now? And who’s singing it?
If you’re facing discouragement or need hope, I highly recommend auditing your playlist. Load it with lyrics and songs that help you to focus, encourage you, lift you up. Find the kind of songs that could stand in for a great, cheering crowd or great cloud of witnesses.
The music we play as we live out the story of our lives matters. Craft a playlist that nourishes your soul.
Got a song or playlist that’s moving you onwards? Share it here:
Galchinsky, Michael. "Lament as Transitional Justice." Human Rights Review 15.3 (2014): 259-281.
Kazi F. Farzana, "Music and Artistic Artefacts: Symbols of Rohingya Identity and Everyday Resistance in Borderlands,” Austrian Journal of South-East Asian Studies 4.2 (2011): 222.