Rock Your Playlist

Music is a wildly personal accessory, and one we tend to carry everywhere with us these days, favorite songs saved on our phone or hanging out in the ever-accessible cloud.

And then we have our playlists. Most of us have some version of a “chill love groove” playlist, or  “summer driving,” or “fast-and-loud workout.” But what about a playlist of your favorites to walk you through a life’s worth of memory lanes? A soundtrack to soothe or stimulate you as you dance between this world and the next?

Author Mark Vanhoenacker made his own “singing will,” as he calls it in an essay in the New York Times, after he had a soul-satisfying music experience while a dear friend, Lois, lay dying. “Lois was often partly conscious. But she was not able to speak with the family and friends who surrounded her,” he writes. He spotted his iPhone charging on a side table, and, remembering that Lois had loved summer performances of the Boston Symphony at nearby Tanglewood, created a playlist of classical greats. She died listening to the renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma. He writes:

“Later I came to think of the music we played not as a gift to Lois, but as a final present from her. I was grateful to know what music she loved, and to have had something small to do, when there was nothing else to be done.”

A beautiful point, as there are often hours to fill by the bedside. And though it’s still not been scientifically proven, there is much anecdotal evidence that supports the idea that hearing is the last of our senses to take leave of us as we lay dying.

What we do know, however, is that music has a very real power to transport us back to a place and time, and is an actual neurological experience in our brain. The parts of the brain that are stimulated by memories of music are in what is called “implicit memory,” as opposed to “explicit memory” which is how we recall dates and faces and specifics of an event. Implicit memory is more tied to emotions—and it is an enduring part of the brain, not damaged by Alzheimer’s the way explicit memory centers are.

In other words, music can reach some people near end of life in a way we otherwise can’t reach them.

If you need some inspiration to get your Death List started, check this out: NPR’s Robin Hilton is the producer and co-host for the music show All Songs Considered; he created an excellent segment filled with listeners’ choices for the last song they want to hear, which is an amazing journey through different kinds of moods and emotions.

As for Hilton himself, he says his final song would have to be Pink Floyd’s “Great Gig in the Sky,” as he predicts it would “send me off into the unknown with its perfect mix of sorrow, anguish, majestic awe and celestial wonder.”

Vanhoenacker, the author of the Times essay, also encouraged readers to submit what would be on their on final playlists. The resulting article captures favorites from gospel to garage rock, Dylan to the Dead.

There are, of course, as many musical styles as there are musical tastes. (For proof of that, check out the wildly disparate and delightful picks for favorite last songs chosen by music critics.) All the more reason to make sure your choices are known, and to prepare your kick-the-bucket list, a playlist of the music you would love to hear for all eternity.