How a Playlist Keeps My Family Connected to My Late Father

On a recent grocery run, my son, Jack, asked me to play Neil Diamond’s “Beautiful Noise.” Most 7-year-olds ask for a Disney or Minecraft soundtrack. Not Jack. From the time he was 3 years old, Jack was crooning Neil Diamond hits.

It didn’t happen by design. Diamond’s songs were just among the 1,500-plus tracks on our family iPod. But I quickly discovered that Jack’s love of Neil Diamond could become the thread that tied him to my late father, who died when Jack was 4.

The legendary singer was among my dad’s favorite artists. Every time he heard “Sweet Caroline,” Dad joined in for the chorus in his tone-deaf singing voice as if he was on stage at the Hollywood Bowl. Now when I catch that tune on our iPod—and hear Jack singing along from the back of my minivan—I feel viscerally connected to my dad.

It turns out, using music to strengthen familial ties isn’t unfounded. Studies like this one, published in Behavioral and Brain Sciences, show pre-school-age children form social bonds, based in part, on song. By age 2 or 3, kids can reproduce songs their caregivers sing with remarkable pitch and tone, and children show greater fluency in song than in speech.

“Music transcends any age, language, religion, or cultural background,” says anthropologist Luke Glowacki, a professor at Boston University. “It provides a mechanism to bring people together and help them adapt to new environments and overcome challenges.”

Studies like this one published in American Psychology suggest that music serves as a powerful tool to bolster social connections, even when people are physically distant. The networks in your brain that are involved in singing overlap with those related to social affiliation and connectedness. Plus, singing along to your favorite tunes activates the brain’s reward system, flooding the body with bonding chemicals like dopamine and oxytocin.

The more I delved into the research, the more I wanted to tap into music’s uncanny ability to excavate memories and bring people together. My first thought was to create a playlist of my dad’s favorite tunes. Whether you use Spotify, YouTube, Apple Music, or SoundCloud, most playlist apps have technology that helps you fashion playlists from just a few song titles. But according to Patrick Savage, director of the Keio University CompMusic Lab in Fujisawa, Japan, you can create a more meaningful playlist by talking to loved ones and identifying songs that remind you of the memories you shared.

So I started a text thread among my multigenerational family members with two questions: “Which songs remind you of Dad?” and “Do you have a specific memory tied to each song on your list?”

Their responses uncovered things I didn’t know about my father. Mom texted that Dad fell in love with the Beach Boys’ “Surfing Safari,” then attempted to surf and failed (as evidenced by the scar on his cheek.) My sister recalled Dad singing Barry Manilow’s “I Made It Through the Rain” during long road trips. And my brother-in-law chimed in with a memory of Dad trying to master his moves to “Boot Scootin’ Boogie” and nearly taking out half the people on the dance floor.

I added each of these songs to a shared Spotify playlist I named “Dad” and encouraged my relatives to add more to the queue. Fortunately for my sometimes tech-averse family, creating the playlist was as easy as clicking three dots to add songs, share the list, and collaborate. In that way, creating a playlist became an interactive walk down memory lane for the whole family—and a dramatic upgrade from the days where you had to purchase music, make a mixtape, and ship a copy to each family member.

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