Music is a powerful force to unlock the memories that make up our history
In this week’s column, Newmarket History Hound Richard MacLeod examines how songs from our past can stop us in our tracks and take us back to another time
Does music from your past have the power to stop you dead, swept away in a myriad of nostalgic feelings? Well, it certainly is for me. I can just go on with my life, whether it’s a good day or a bad day, and a song I love from my past is playing somewhere within earshot and bam, just like that I sing and dance, carried away in that moment to when I first heard the melody.
I was wondering why this was happening to me so I decided to do a little research. This weekend’s article on Newmarket Today is the result of my research into music and why it touches us so much. I suspect that this phenomenon may affect many of you out there as well.
When I sat down and reflected on how music affects my emotional experience, I discovered that music can evoke powerful emotional responses within me, whether it be sadness or joy.
The literature I read on the subject talked about the positive emotions that generally dominate our musical experiences, but for me that’s not always the case. Very often a song will elicit feelings of remorse or sadness because it takes me back to a setting where that was the dominant emotion at the time.
I think we can all agree that listening to music is an effective way to alter your mood or relieve your stress. People use music in their daily lives to regulate, improve and decrease unwanted emotional states (eg stress or fatigue). The question is, how does listening to music produce emotions and pleasure in the listener?
A few weeks ago I was working on one of my articles, and in the background I hear Three Rows Over, Two Seats Down, a song by Bobby Curtola, playing on the radio. I immediately stopped what I was doing and closed my eyes: I am now back at the Newmarket Community ice rink in the 60s, trying to catch up with a young woman I particularly liked at the time. I felt like I was back there, with all my resident emotions intact.
This is often the case; I just hear a chorus of a song and the joys and tribulations of my past immediately come to mind. Strangely, if I deliberately try to remember something particular from my past without the accompanying music, I don’t feel anything as immediate or as emotional. It’s an experience often shared by everyone: listen to a piece of music from decades ago and you’re transported to that exact moment in time, just like stepping into a time machine. You can feel everything as if you were there.
The relationship between music and memory is powerful, and I understand that new research hopes to uncover how these memories work for therapeutic effect. We know it’s already being used to help dementia patients, the elderly, and people with depression.
So there is a connection between music and memory, but why when we hear a particular song do we feel such strong emotions rather than just reciting the lyrics?
Scientists tell us that there are different types of memory, including explicit and implicit memory. Explicit memory is a deliberate and conscious retrieval of the past, often prompted by questions like: where was I that summer? Who was I traveling with? Implicit memory is more of a reactive, unintentional form of memory, it’s just there.
Much of memory takes place in the unconscious. There are aspects of memory that are remembered implicitly, that is, outside of consciousness. Implicit memory systems involve different parts of the brain than explicit memory systems.
It is the explicit memory systems that are damaged by conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease. Implicit systems are robust in comparison. I know that I have found that things that can affect me from outside of my consciousness (where I am at the time) are often powerful. In other words, implicit memory is both emotional and enduring.
In particular, the memories stimulated by music often come from a particular moment in our lives. Classic hits take us back to our teens and 20s, much more so than songs from later years. Psychologists called it the bump of reminiscence. It may work this way because it was a particularly important and exciting time in our lives when we first experienced things and became independent.
Later, life gets a little blurry. Music evokes emotion, but the sound and feel of it, while important, doesn’t necessarily seem to define your feelings. A sad song can be associated with a happy time in my life, or a happy song with a sad one.
Experts tell us that music has a profound physical effect on all of us. Music can create a strong tendency to move in coordination with the music (for example, dancing or tapping your feet). Our internal rhythms (for example, our heartbeat) speed up or slow down to become one with the music. We float and move with the music.
It’s not necessarily my pop/rock music that evokes memories of that time in my life. When hearing a song that we listened to as a family, “my mother’s or my father’s music” seems to work the same way. Why? Well, for starters, this music was playing in the background whether we selected it or not. There is always something on the radio, in bars, clubs and bedrooms that is contemporary and almost accidentally attached to a particular era. This music is also of the moment
Listen to popular music from the 50s, 60s, or 70s, for example, and you’ll remember what that era was like. For me, there is something more abstract in classical music, which has become detached from its period of origin and can be more difficult to situate.
Researchers make an important observation about the differences between smell and hearing regarding memories. Smell differs in that it is a personal memory, whereas there is something very social about our experience of music. Simply put, musical memories are often shared with our peers. We tend to listen, together. We go to concerts or parties together.
And it’s because the music is there as the backdrop to the lives we share with others, often with loved ones, that these sounds become particularly meaningful to us. Indeed, this “music of our lives” is often played or composed for important occasions, like funerals, birthdays, parties, weddings or maybe that special date, where we experience major life events.
Medicine has discovered that for people who have suffered traumatic brain injuries, music can help bring back some of those special moments in their lives. People with dementia can trigger vivid memories by listening to music they heard when they were young. Music therapy is also used for people with depression. Music can’t heal, but maybe it can help heal.
The second question I asked myself is why “the ancients” inspire this deep flood of memories to resurface. I still listen to music of all genres, but it seems to be the music from my youth that really moves me.
I find that when listening to older songs, the rhythm, vocals, and the whole song, in general, are less edited and therefore produce better music than most modernized genres today. I like the base; it always seems to move me. It’s almost impossible not to sing along with them, and they’re most enjoyable when they’re catchy.
At pretty much every wedding I’ve been to, Sweet Caroline has played, I think because people of all ages love her. Even though there’s a 60-year-old woman and a 10-year-old boy on the dance floor, they both know it and come together because he’s just one of those elders everyone knows. It’s a Wonderful World is another song of this ilk.
I learned very early in my career that music can be a great icebreaker in tricky situations. No matter how delicate the situation was, be it a family reunion, a wedding, in a professional environment or even a meeting at someone’s home, music is the key to the success of Communication. In my experience, when you release older music, you draw a crowd. All those shy caterpillars like me turn into social butterflies in no time.
Sometimes when I remember my family and especially my parents and grandparents, I like to listen to what my parents used to listen to. Somehow it brings them closer again.
Like everyone else, I go through all the ups and downs in life. The music brings out the happiness and the desire to sing in me (much to the chagrin of those around me, ha-ha). I may be a bad singer but I get emotional when I hear these old personal tracks and I can’t really help it, I feel the love and yes the sadness these songs bring.
One of the questions I always ask in the oral history interviews I conduct is what song makes you laugh, smile or cry, bring you back? Everyone has a song, everyone can tell you when they first heard it, who they were with and how they felt.
The next time your “personal oldie” pops up, sit down, close your eyes, and announce it to the world. Bathe in the memories it evokes in you. It is, in my opinion, the best way to stay sane in what has become a very trying time. History is a story of memories and music is a solid pathway to unlocking those memories.
Sources: Music, emotion and well-being: how does music affect the way we think, feel and behave? by Abigail Fagan; Science Explains Why We Like Old Music Better Than Anything Else by Tom Barne; 11 Reasons Why Old Songs Will Always The New “Old” Hits by Nicole Priebe; Why does music evoke memories? By Tiffany Jenkins
Richard MacLeod, a Newmarket resident, the History Hound, has been a local historian for over 40 years. He writes a weekly feature on our town’s history in partnership with Newmarket Today, hosts heritage talks and local interest walking tours, and conducts local oral history interviews.