It’s “back to school” time. And for some of us – like me – that phrase has new meaning.

Our 3-year-old son will be attending school for the first time this fall, and he’s diving head-first – attending five days a week, all in-person. And as genuinely excited as I am for him – for this step forward in his life, for the opportunities he’ll have to make new friends, for all that my bright kiddo is about to learn – I am also, I confess, awash in fear.

I’m scared he’ll melt down when I leave him there that first day. I’m scared he’ll struggle to adjust to the structure school brings, after years of individualized care at home or in the hands of nearby family members who minded him while we worked (in particular my mother-in-law, who should be nominated for sainthood at this point). And in this day and age, I’m scared of gun violence and any number of ever-increasing public health threats.

There’s also a great deal of apprehension surrounding how I’ll fare in all of this, too. Carrying those worries themselves; holding the added stress and responsibilities of having a school-aged child; and whether – at the heart of all the other specific concerns I could list – I’ll be equal to the task. That I’ll navigate this well enough to be the type of mother I know my son deserves.

And that I’ll still be able to be everything else that I am, at the same time.

In moments like this, I turn to music for comfort and strength. And one song in particular – “Roar” by Katy Perry – never fails to get me into a steadier, happier head space. I grab my headphones, pop it on, and I revisit how that boppy, poppy international chart-topper became my personal hype music. (That’s a story for another time.) After a few minutes, I remember that I’ve seen myself through far harder, far worse situations, and have still come out on top. 

That’s the best thing about motivational songs. They strike something inside of you that gets you moving – be it physically, mentally, emotionally, or spiritually. They make you remember that there’s no reason why you can’t fight – and fight well – again.

Below, you’ll find a brief, eclectic collection of tracks chosen to get you through the back-to-school jitters – and anything else you might be facing this fall.

(P.S. If you’re into that sort of thing, here’s my playlist-in-miniature on YouTube Music.)


"Girl on Fire" by Alicia Keys

Is this even a song? Or is it actually an auditory device designed in a lab to make listeners stand up and scream a musical chorus at the top of their lungs? We may never know. Regardless, listening to this one demands a physical response – and what better way to start off a so-called motivational playlist than with something that literally gets us out of our seats?


"Brave" by Sara Bareilles

No matter how many “playlist” posts I pen for The Story Exchange, and no matter how varied their themes become, there will be a place for a Sara Bareilles tune on every one. But in my defense, this song is an excellent example of why – her voice is effervescent, her melodies stick and soar, and her lyrics are always exactly what you needed to hear.


“Change Your Mind” by Sister Hazel

Readers may not have had “selection from the ‘Bedazzled’ film soundtrack” on their motivational playlist bingo cards. But I absolutely demand that anyone reading this post give this song a chance, from start to finish. If what you need to get going in the morning is a smile, then this mid-tempo day-starter is the song you’ve been looking for.


“Fix You” as performed by Exit 245

Who says musical motivation has to be high-energy? This song, originally by British pop band Coldplay, is about helping a loved one through grief. And sometimes, before we charge ahead into what’s coming, we have to sit with whatever it is that’s presently causing us pain and discomfort. This stirring a cappella cover demands that listeners take those precious minutes.


“Shake it Off” by Florence + the Machine

Any collection of songs designed to motivate must include at least one tune that could earnestly be described as “epic.” Florence Welch’s unmistakable voice, combined with liberal use of the organ – hardly a common instrument among Billboard Hot 100 tunes – make you feel as though you’re living out the climax of your own personal movie on perseverance. And maybe you are.


"Survivor" by Destiny's Child

When discussing this post with a friend, I said that I was seeking, in part, songs that’d make the listener feel as though they could punch a deity afterwards. This was the first song that came to my mind at that description. This 2001 hit is more anthem than song, for a nation of women – of people – who are positively done with perennial naysayers.


“You’ll Never Walk Alone” as performed by Ray Charles

And now for something completely different. (But what was I supposed to do? Not end with Ray Charles?) Yes, the song is cliche – but, it should be noted, cliches exist for a reason. Charles’ performance takes it to stirring new places, with the grit and imperfections, fused with his natural talent and charm, serving to both ground and elevate this staple from the show “Carousel.”

(Featured Imaged Photo Credit: José Goulão, Wikimedia Commons)