Joy Allen, chair of the Music Therapy Department at Berklee, says that her current theme song is “I’m Not Okay” by My Chemical Romance. She’s quick to point out that the song ends with the lyrics, “I am okay,” but after a turbulent month following the closure of Berklee’s Boston campus due to Covid-19, she says it’s important to acknowledge where you’re at emotionally by identifying your theme song. 

Though this article originally ran in 2020, when many people all over the world were experiencing the initial mental health challenges of lockdown, the advice offered in this article is valuable for helping you use music to get you through any difficult times. Even music therapists use music therapy techniques, and you can too.

“We all have music that we know changes our moods,” says Suzanne Hanser, founding chair of the Music Therapy Department at Berklee and the author and instructor of the Music Therapy Techniques for Wellness course at Berklee Online. “When we use music in a specific way to bring about a change in our feelings, to take us away from the chaos of the outer world, to calm us down when we’re in a very unpredictable and crazy place in the world, it can be a very powerful tool to help us to respond in a more measured way.”

Here are five tips to help you cope from Berklee’s expert voices in music therapy.

Find Your Power Song

If you find yourself listening to a song over and over and resonating with the message, then this may be your power song. Your power song has the ability to change the way you feel and help you process your emotions. 

“When you find a song that really speaks to you and expresses what you’re going through, it can be very empowering and really help you understand your true feelings,” says Hanser. 

Hanser suggests that you find time on a regular basis to listen to your power song, sing it, dance to it, or play it on an instrument. Better yet, share your power song with others.

Make Playlists That Start Where You Are

When you’re feeling sad, anxious, or angry, you may reach for music that is soothing or happy. Hanser and Allen would encourage you to start with songs that represent the way that you’re feeling and gradually shift to the state you’d like to be in. This concept is the Iso Principle.

Suzanne Hanser describes how the Iso Principle relates to music therapy.

“If you’re able to sit down and listen to a song that’s optimistic and hopeful and it speaks to you, that’s fabulous,” says Hanser. “But, for many people, it’s even agitating, because they don’t feel hopeful and they can’t relate to that singer and those lyrics and the mood of that piece.”

Hanser and Allen suggest building an Iso Principle playlist. First, find a piece of music that matches how you feel when you are in distress. This will be the first song on your playlist. Then, find a piece of music that represents how you want to feel. This will be the last song on your playlist. Fill in the gaps with music that gradually transitions from one song to the next until you fill out your playlist. Hanser says you can interpret this in any way that seems right for you. Allen recommends searching through preexisting Spotify playlists categorized by moods for inspiration. 

Connect with Others by Sharing Music

Sharing music can be a wonderful way to stay connected with your loved ones. Once you identify your power songs or curate a playlist that takes you from one state of mind to another, share the music with someone you trust. 

“That’s where the therapeutic part of this comes in when we find that deep connection with music and especially if that music is also connected to people who are loved ones or people who have a great connection to us as a friend or as family members or as someone we just care about or are caring for,” says Hanser. “All of those connections are strengthened often just by listening to your song.” 

Not only can sharing music help you connect with others, but it can help you discover new music.

“Sharing with other people provides an opportunity to connect or communicate with someone else, but it’s also a way of expanding your own listening,” says Allen. “That might be helpful because sometimes we get stuck listening to the same thing over and over, and then it doesn’t do the same thing for us.”

You’ve probably heard that it’s important to check in on your friends, family, and neighbors. Instead of the standard, “How are you hanging in?” why not send someone a song or a playlist?

Learn a New Instrument or Piece of Music

Whether you’re interested in trying a brand new instrument or challenging yourself with a new piece of music on an instrument that you currently play, this is a great way to give yourself a goal to work toward. Plus, when you progress and meet your musical goals, you’ll feel a sense of accomplishment. 

“Learning a new instrument, even learning a new piece of music, grabs your attention because you need so many resources to do that,” says Hanser. “You’re totally engaged in something that is creative and something that may even give you a sense of flow.”


Create Your Own Personal Affirmation Jingle

Jingles aren’t exclusive to advertising. In Hanser’s Berklee Online course, students set their personal affirmations to music. A personal affirmation is a word or statement that you can recite to ward off negative thoughts. An example could be “I can get through this day.” Determine what you need to hear and set your personal affirmation to a melody. When you’re feeling distressed, sing or think of your jingle and see how you feel. 

“In addition to bringing peace and power to your life, music is also capable of focusing your attention on something meaningful and important to you,” Hanser says in her blog post. “In this way, it can effectively interrupt the flow of negative thoughts, worries, or dysfunctional patterns of thinking.”


 Published April 16, 2020