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Friday, March 24, 2023

How to Build the Perfect Pump-Up Playlist

You probably have a song you play to get you up in the morning. Maybe something you listen to before a difficult day, a job interview, or a public speaking gig. I certainly do—I have a whole playlist full of them. You might too. But why does music inspire us so much, and how can we find more music to hype us up?

If you don’t have a playlist of songs to get you hyped up for the day, build one. If building a playlist sounds like yet another thing to add to your to-do list, worry not: Plenty of music services have mood- or genre-based playlists to get you ready for the day, and we'll come through with some suggestions here too.

Why Does Music Inspire Us?

Before you just toss anything into your "seize the day" playlist, it’s important to understand why music gets us hyped up in the first place. Luckily, the topic has been well studied, even if the exact causes are still poorly understood. In one study, researchers in Finland found that when we listen to music, we enter an almost “mind wandering” mode, which helps us feel more creative and inspired to work on the tasks at hand, or get started on something new. And those tasks can be broad as well—programmers, students, artists, writers, and workers from a wide range of disciplines all report feeling more productive when they listen to music while they work.

That “mind wandering” mode is our brains’ default state, as this article at the Huffington Post explains. It allows us to selectively focus on tasks that inspire us, and provides the freedom to switch gears as our whims and attention shift. It’s also the reason why it can be so difficult to force yourself to focus on any one thing, but why that one thing can feel so easy once you’re “in the zone.”

And music—for many of us—is the key to getting there.

Where Can I Find a Good Playlist?

We’ve all heard that the right song or playlist can get us into the zone, but if you thought it was something that only happens to you, you’re not alone. Not only is the topic researched well enough that you can assume others experience it as well, but our favorite streaming services have picked up on the idea and incorporated it into their programming.

Alex White, VP of content and programming at Pandora, runs the music service’s programming team. They’re the folks who build the stations and playlists that aren’t the algorithmic ones you create yourself when you type in an artist name or a specific song. In an email, when I asked about the service’s upbeat playlists and how they’re made, he described the process: “We generally have one curator per genre who we make superhuman through their musical expertise, and combine them with the billions of data points we collect and the industry and talent relationships that we have to create the perfect upbeat stations and playlists.”

“Our research combines quantitative research (what listeners are listening to throughout the day) and qualitative (surveys of listeners about how they are using Pandora). Sticking with the energizing theme, our workout stations and playlists are our most popular mood-based programming. We also have a Wake-Up and Party section of our moods programming that people use to get up and motivated.”

So it’s not just you—people on virtually every streaming music service and beyond turn to mood-based playlists to help them get up in the morning, face a serious workout, or just get things done over the course of the day. Over on YouTube, streams like ChilledCow’s lofi hip hop, StaySee Music’s curated streams, and College Music’s live streams (among many others) have blossomed to feed hungry listeners music to help them focus, study, or just relax.

With more people working remotely and spending time at home, we’re all listening to more music as well. White explains that as Pandora has expanded its playlist programming, the service has seen a surge of interest. “These new playlists support Pandora's recent findings that Americans are leaning on music now more than ever as a way to adapt to the shift in spending more time at home.”

As for when people are listening? The times and playlists are as varied as the tasks you want to accomplish. Want to wake up more easily? White explained that there’s a whole suite of stations designed to help you wake up in the morning, from the pop-focused Morning Hits to smoother options like morning Motown music and their Break of Dawn R&B channel, among other more rousing options like Morning Metal. If you’re trying to get a workout in, White recommends Pandora’s workout stations. “Listeners who can’t hit the gym are finding motivation in fast-moving, upbeat exercise at home: Pandora’s Pop and Hip-Hop Power Workout and Pop Fitness stations are among the top-streamed fitness stations during the week.”

In short, whatever it is you need a boost to tackle, there’s likely a playlist not just for that exact thing but a playlist for that thing that also features music you love. “Our listeners tell us they turn to Pandora at key moments throughout the day, especially around getting energized. At the gym, heading into work, music to focus while studying, or a soundtrack to the commute home,” White explains. “Not only are they telling us, but we can watch their collective behavior. Before Covid-19 we could literally see the times people would leave the office to head home, with noticeable spikes in the start of weekday listening sessions at 5, 5:30, 6 pm etc. local time.”

How to Build Your Own Playlist

Over at Pandora, when they need to tweak a playlist or improve their algorithm, they use listener data. In short, they keep an eye on how you use the service to try to make it better for you the next time you sign in. “Through watching user behavior we’ve also learned Pandora users gravitate towards a few favorite stations but love the mix of favorite artists and tracks alongside discovering new songs,” White explains. “One major request our listeners have had has been for more control of their favorite stations. That’s why we launched Modes last year to let listeners select Crowd Faves, Deep Cuts, Artist Only, or other modes on their favorite stations.”

Pandora, for example, offers its listeners Personalize Soundtracks, like the upbeat Your Energy Soundtrack that lives among them. Spotify, for its part, also has mood-based playlists, and introduces you to new music every week with the ever-popular Discover Weekly playlist.

But finding new music that inspires you is just part of the picture. You also have to consider what the music you’ll listen to is supposed to help you accomplish. When your favorite preprogrammed playlists start giving you repeats and you’re tired of the vibe from those bookmarked YouTube streams, you can always take the reins yourself and build a playlist that really reflects you—or the moment you’re trying to push through.

If you’re trying to focus and get work done, instrumental, rhythmic songs and long mixes are energizing without being distracting. If you’re prepping for a stressful event or day, you might want something upbeat with driving vocals or lyrics that inspire you.

A study sponsored by Spotify and conducted by Emma Gray, a consultant clinical psychologist and clinical lead at the British CBT & Counseling Service, proposed that tracks that are between 50 and 80 beats per minute, regardless of the genre or type, are ideal for focus, for example. However, additional research by Spotify reveals that many listeners tend to prefer music a bit higher than our resting heart rate, and if you’re looking for workout music, they even offer their study data broken down by heart rate zone here, so you can click your active or desired heart rate and see the most popular songs played by people whose fitness trackers report they were working out at that heart rate. It’s a good way to get a few popular songs to seed your playlist with.

Try These Tracks to Get Started

Finally, if you’re looking for specific song suggestions, here’s a playlist full of suggestions from WIRED writers and editors designed to get you going. You’ll find a little of everything here, so the eclectic can play it as-is, you can hit shuffle and bounce around, and if you have preferred songs or artists, you can use it as inspiration. The tracks in the playlist are in no particular order, so feel free to explore (and if you're using the embed below, only the first 100 tracks are listed. There's way more in the full playlist to enjoy).

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