Imagine yourself giving a toast, making a speech or delivering a big presentation at work—only to forget midway through what you wanted to say. If the mere thought makes you cringe, you’ll be intrigued by a new book that reveals how to use music to improve your recall. The best part is that whatever type of music appeals most to you is what will be most effective—so you don’t have to suffer through music you find boring or annoying.

How it works: “Because music permeates all areas of the brain, it has a tremendous capacity to deposit any memories you attach to it in assorted locations. This embeds them deeper into your brain and makes it possible to retrieve them from multiple memory banks,” said Galina Mindlin, MD, PhD, an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at Columbia University and coauthor of Your Playlist Can Change Your Life: 10 Proven Ways Your Favorite Music Can Revolutionize Your Health, Memory, Organization, Alertness, and More.

You may remember the buzz back in the 1990s when a small study reported that listening to a Mozart piano sonata produced a temporary improvement in spatial reasoning skills. These modest findings were blown out of proportion in the popular press, which disseminated the exaggerated idea that “Mozart makes you smart.” Subsequent research has shown that music can indeed have cognitive benefits, but it’s not about Mozart. In fact, Dr. Mindlin’s method works with any type of music—country, classical, reggae, rock, rap, pop, opera or whatever—provided you enjoy it. She explained, “The more you like the music, the more it activates brain networks and functions that amplify and sustain the effects you are working toward, such as increased concentration and alertness.”


So, getting back to memorizing that toast, speech or presentation, here’s what you do. First, create three lists of musical selections…

1: Calming songs. On this list, include songs that you know from experience make you feel relaxed and balanced because they are associated with pleasurable, peaceful events from your past. For instance, one song might remind you of a blissful solitary stroll in the woods…another might bring back memories of a glorious sunset sail. Tip: Research shows that songs with a slower tempo of 100 beats per minute (BPM) or less tend to bring on relaxation and calm. Examples: “New, New York” sung by Frank Sinatra or “American Pie” by Don McLean.

2: Fast-paced “activating” songs. Activating songs are mentally energizing. They might remind you of a time when you zoomed through a challenging task, celebrated an accomplishment or won a race. Generally, songs that work well in this category have a tempo of 130 BPM or faster—for instance, “Beat It” by Michael Jackson or “Jailhouse Rock” sung by Elvis Presley. Such rhythms tend to boost motivation and endurance.

3: Medium-paced activating songs. Here, select songs that recharge your batteries yet have a slightly slower tempo, typically 100 to 130 BPM. Examples include “Stayin’ Alive” by the Bee Gees or the Beatles’ “Lady Madonna.” These types of songs help your brain lock in whatever you’re trying to commit to memory.

Choose half a dozen or more selections for each list. Reason: Feelings shift from day to day. For example, you might normally feel relaxed by a song you and your husband slow-danced to at your wedding—but if you two just had an argument, that song might upset you today. Assess your current emotions each time you use your playlists, selecting the songs that feel appropriate for the particular moment.

Once you’ve selected your songs, create your three playlists on your iPod or record the songs onto CDs or cassettes.


Now you’re ready to use your music to enhance your ability to memorize whatever it is that you want to commit to memory. Follow these steps in order…

Listen to one or more calming songs to prepare your brain to be receptive to learning. As you listen, recall as vividly as possible the relaxing, positive memories associated with each song. Continue listening until you reach that state of relaxed mental alertness.

Play fast-paced activating songs to shift your brain into remembering mode. Again, as you listen, visualize in detail the upbeat memories linked with that music. Continue listening until you feel energized and ready to approach your task.

Turn the music off and focus on what you want to remember. For instance, read your speech aloud from start to finish, moving around or gesturing as you read—the sound of your voice and your physical movements provide additional anchors that help cement the speech in your memory.

When you finish rehearsing, listen to one or more mid-tempo activating songs. This serves as a mental cool-down to further fix the material in your mind.

For maximum effect, use this technique daily. The amount of time you spend depends on the material you’re trying to remember, but generally the music portion of the activity takes about 10 to 15 minutes per session. Key: Remember to have fun with this, Dr. Mindlin said—it should not be a chore, but instead a source of enjoyment.