6 Key Steps for Putting Together a Purposeful Playlist for Work, Home, and Life

As a certified music therapist and the President of JB Music Therapy, Jennifer Buchanan knows a thing or two about the power of music to heal, so we asked her to give our readers the key steps to creating a purposeful playlist for all occasions, followed by her own playlist to get you inspired to make your own. 

1. Unpack your desired outcome for the playlist

Identifying the most significant goal, objective, or need is the ultimate first step in the “purposeful” part of a playlist. If you are going through a particularly challenging transition or have significant concerns for your mental well-being, I recommend working with a psychologist, counsellor, or music therapist on this first step.

2. Choose a title with some feeling

Title your playlist the feeling you wish to achieve to support the behaviour you hope to change.

3. Include songs to match

Only include songs in this playlist that evoke the feeling you have identified, and remove all songs that don’t strike the right chord (sorry for music pun).

4. Listen when you need it most

Intentional music listening, at the right time, can help. Assess when you need it most. When you need a boost—waking up, driving to work, driving home, in the evening. Please note you may need different playlists for different times of the day.

5. Use a good quality sound source

The quality of sound contributes to your feelings of health and enjoyment.

6. Stay open to new music

Tap into some of the excellent streaming services out there, or your old vinyl collection that you haven’t visited for a while, to help you explore new music. Having a music club, much like many have a book club, will also open your listening world.

Other important considerations: If making a playlist for others—never make assumptions. If you are working with someone who cannot communicate for themselves (i.e., due to stroke or dementia), connect with your local music therapist to ensure the best possible and safest music choices are made. Also, this is just one playlist process. There are many others, including the top 10 albums, songs that soothe, a curation of your life-long personal soundtrack, and the 12 signature songs that give your friends a snapshot of what you are all about.

Now, to get you going on creating your own playlist, I have made a top 10 list from my long personal soundtrack. The songs are chronological (to me) from my earliest memories and connections to an artist, to my most recent. They are Canadian (mostly). They are also the songs that showed up at significant points in my life—arriving at times of great change, pain, and/or growth. These are the songs that would have been playing on my radio, in the car, at the beach, and throughout the walls of my home, school, or offices.

These are the songs that have settled deep in my being. They empower me. They challenge me. They are a piece of me. Sometimes words are not enough. I’m letting music start the conversation, so here we go.

“Sunshine on My Shoulders” by John Denver

OK, not Canadian, but this is truly my most significant earliest musical memory. John Denver, at my school in Langley, British Columbia sharing his story of walking with Chief Dan George and what that meant to him. This is one of the many songs he sang in our school gym that day and that I will never forget.

“Working for the Weekend” by Loverboy

Hello public school! You couldn’t live in the lower mainland without this band playing loud and proud out of your neighbour’s Camero.

“If I Had a Million Dollars” by Barenaked Ladies

I can’t help but miss the whole group so many years later. We all knew all the words and sang it frequently.

“O Siem” by Susan Aglukark

This was the beginning of a whole host of women artists who started to speak to me through their music. I was so grateful to meet and spend time with Susan many years later and hear her life-changing stories up close and personal.

“Building a Mystery” by Sarah McLachlan

Not sure what to say here, but Sarah, Whitney Houston, and Eva Cassidy all soothed me. Perhaps even healed me. They inspired me during my Music Therapy training when I was so uncertain if I was on the right path.

“Ironic” by Alanis Morisette

Thank God for Alanis. She allowed me to express my frustration and rebelliousness. She let me shake off my insecurities and embrace my strengths. With her, in my head, I was able to move on.

“Hallelujah” by k.d. lang

The crowd disappeared at the Calgary Folk Music Festival, and all that was left was me, k.d. and every tear flowing from my eyes. Forever grateful.

“Good Mother” by Jann Arden

Jann has always been a part of my music listening, but following her story with her mom allowed me to process so many of my questions, saddness and hopes for the many elders I have had the honour to work with.

“All By Myself” by Céline Dion

Confession ahead. I was never a fan. Not sure why. And then. I went to watch her in Las Vegas with a few friends. Folks, no matter what you think of Céline, she is real. She is quirky, artistic, and professional. She LOVES to sing and make music. My ears were opened to her brilliance.

“Blinding Lights” by The Weeknd.

This song has given me many days of motivation that I have needed during COVID. There is light on the other side.

Jennifer Buchanan lives in Calgary, is a certified music therapist and President of JB Music Therapy, and the author of Tune In and Wellness Incorporated, available through the NMC Gift Shop.