Can a Music Algorithm Help you Improve Your Mental Health?

Suggestions from a music app kept me afloat in 2019 despite chronic depression. It was both weird and life-affirming.

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It’s no coincidence I named my smartphone after a cult Portuguese song from 1983 called “Adeus Tristeza”. Translated as “goodbye sadness”, the song became my personal anthem the minute I heard it a year ago. Every time I turn on Bluetooth, my phone’s name acts as a reminder.

Back in December 2018, I was still emerging from five years of depression that destroyed everything. I was also trying to find a way to get back to Europe so I could be by my parents’ side as they continue to deal with Stage IV cancer. Although I had already set myself the task of rebuilding a life word by word in the summer of 2018, I only started listening to music again that winter; reentry into the world of sound was brutal. I fought my malfunctioning brain for a whole day until it eventually relented and accepted music was back in my life.

Until then, I spent years in self-imposed silence because music — be it classical or anything with lyrics — became so upsetting I couldn’t bear to hear it without bursting into tears. Listening to it was out of the question. Even accidental music in shops would reduce my brain to mush and induce waterworks.

As I hardly left my home, it didn’t happen often. But on the rare occasions I went to sit in my favorite Seattle coffee shop, the playlist always threw my brain for a loop. And yet, there are three reasons I love that place above all others: super friendly barista, excellent coffee, and an ever-changing playlist that never disappoints. In that shop, sound is an intrinsic part of my coffee experience, perhaps because I’m far more sensitive to it than most.

After years of self-imposed silence, the decision to shock my brain into accepting music again wasn’t taken lightly. As a linguist with a background in radio, sound is something that had always formed part and parcel of my daily life before depression struck. When I was a toddler, hearing a song I loved on the radio always made me giggle and wriggle; as an adult, my response used to be similar until it wasn’t.

To my brain, the shock of music was so intense I spent an entire day crying my eyes out as I listened to one Portuguese song after the other without interruption. I pushed through pain I had set aside for years; I’m a lusophone by choice but I had cut myself off from Portuguese because to hear it or speak it was torture.

And yet, the language remains one of the defining love stories of my life and has been instrumental in helping me get back on my feet in the last year. Although I fell into Portuguese quite by accident, it unlocked places within I never knew existed. Only then did I understand it was the language my heart spoke but I deliberately shelved it when I left the Azores in 2011.

The songs that carried me through three turbulent years in one of Europe’s most remote outposts are the ones I forced myself to listen to again and again that winter day a year ago. When the algorithm learned what I liked and started suggesting related artists, I began spending my every waking hour with headphones on. Musical epiphanies became more and more frequent; I fell in love with new sounds on a daily basis.

When the algorithm introduced my ears to the band Amor Electro, their cover of “Adeus Tristeza instantly turned into a mission: in 2019, I would make this song reality and shed sadness for good.

The song is about a solo singer and the ups and downs of a career dictated by random luck and devoted to pleasing people.

Having spent his life in a world of make-believe at the beck and call of a fickle public, the singer realizes being true to himself isn’t vanity but vital. He then resolves not let anyone or anything dictate his future anymore, bidding farewell to sadness in the process.

I am not a singer but a writer, and my journalism career is a result of happenstance, taking risks, failing often, and perseverance in the face of adversity so the song spoke to me. “My future was what you could see” is the one line that explains the tyranny of being a freelancer far better than I ever could. No one gets to see the pitches that disappeared into oblivion, the hours of research, the endless rewrites, and the exhaustion inherent to trying to make ends meet through the strength of your words.

Whether it’s a song or a piece of writing, the audience only ever sees the finished product, not the hours of labor that went into making it or the many failures necessary to get to that point.

“Adeus Tristeza” brought many other songs along with it as I dove deeper and deeper into Portuguese music, deriving infinite solace and strength from it. And because I spent 2019 living out of a suitcase in transit between two continents and several countries, music became a portable landmark of sorts.

It is also a way to shut out the outside world and conjure up instant focus; when you work from anywhere in trying conditions with little to no privacy, this is absolutely priceless. Out of the albums now on my regular rotation, one song helped me unlock grief years after my grandma passed away while I was stuck in the US. Another followed me from Lisbon to Amsterdam, and many more helped me weather innumerable dark episodes.

Many of my top songs of 2019 hold particular significance as they’re linked to events, trips, moods, countries, and incidents, too. Discovering them in playlist format confirmed what I already knew: 95% are Portuguese, a handful are French, and there are two albums in German album, too.

And two songs in English.

Music is my indefatigable sidekick and the digital service I use is a tool that helps me manage chronic depression on a daily basis.

Then again, I can also go for a few days without listening to anything but that only happens when I’m staying in a safe place in the Netherlands where focusing is easy because it is quiet and the atmosphere is peaceful. There, I don’t need to block out ambient noise with a soundtrack on a loop whenever I’m working because there isn’t any.

When I started writing this piece, it was the middle of the night in Northern France and I had my headphones on to help me remain alert and switched on. But rather than electro-pop, I was listening to a gentle album by Márcia, whose voice is like velvet to my ears and a cup of hot cocoa for the soul: delightfully soothing.

It is now morning and I’ve switched back to the latest album by an artist I’ve always loved because it is energizing and cheerful and I need a little more help today than coffee can provide.

Without music, there is no way I would have survived a grueling year of endless heartache and psychic pain. Whenever things go awry now, I go hide in music to regroup; it helps me feel grounded and deflect dark thoughts by reminding me life is full of love and beauty and art and joy when you choose to inhabit the moment.

And what better way to do that than by surrendering to music?

Because it promotes clearer thinking, the right soundtrack makes me feel less overwhelmed and more capable; it helps me reframe adversity in a manageable way. Without music, I would have withered; with it, it is sadness that did, not me. My top songs of 2019 playlist is a testament to the power of the almighty algorithm; combining art with tech can work wonders for mental health.

But contrary to what sensationalistic and over-simplified copy would have us believe, it isn’t exactly anonymous machine love but the result of humans developing artificial intelligence until it rivals or even surpasses our own.

That we humans have understood how to engineer helpful algorithms is nothing short of extraordinary but algorithms don’t exist in a vacuum; it takes entire teams of people to tell computers what to do and how to do it. Sometimes, the algorithm still gets it terribly wrong though, which unfailingly makes me laugh because pimba will do that to you.

As for the two English songs in my playlist, one is a cover of a major Lazer track called Lean On by French singer Vianney and the reason I listened to it so much was because it is a musical tribute to those who stood by me throughout the year. The other is by Portuguese singer Rita Redshoes and perfectly sums up how I navigated 2019 in two words: Choose Love.

The almighty music algorithm knows me better than most people and I have no problem with that.

Because I doubt I’d still be around otherwise.

I’m a French-American writer, journalist, and editor living out of a suitcase in transit between North America and Europe. To continue the conversation, follow the bird. For email and everything else, deets in bio.

The human condition is not a pathology・👋ASingularStory[at]gmail・ ☕️

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