Music and Memory
A few weeks ago, my partner Alex and I were out for a drive on one of the first warm days of Portland spring. I was scrolling through the music library on my phone trying to pick some tunes; something that said “windows down, sunglasses on,” even though it was only 60 degrees outside. I settled on Sublime’s self-titled album. It seemed to fit the mood and Alex agreed. The minute the first riff of “Garden Grove” started to flow out of the speakers, I was transported back to age 15, riding around in my friend Caitlin’s lemon-yellow 1971 Dodge Dart, singing along as loud as we could manage. I have such fond memories of those times. The simplicity of driving around and listening to music, because what else was there to do, really, when you’re a teenager in the suburbs?
This happens to me all the time – a song comes on and all of a sudden I’m somewhere else, if only for a moment. A pang of nostalgia regardless of the emotion behind the memory, yet it’s almost always things or people that have fallen by the wayside. Almost always happy. Things that slipped my mind until sharply coming back into focus at the string of a few notes or words in a catchy chorus.
I know it’s a fairly universal feeling – that certain something about music that really takes you back. And the fact that I’m often vividly brought back to my teenage years isn’t surprising when you consider some science. In an article for Slate, Mark Joseph Stern digs into this specific connection:
Why do the songs I heard when I was [a] teenager sound sweeter than anything I listen to as an adult?...In recent years, psychologists and neuroscientists have confirmed that these songs hold disproportionate power over our emotions. And researchers have uncovered evidence that suggests our brains bind us to the music we heard as teenagers more tightly than anything we’ll hear as adults—a connection that doesn’t weaken as we age. Musical nostalgia, in other words, isn’t just a cultural phenomenon: It’s a neuronic command.
The research itself has a wide scope. Finnish researchers published a study in 2011 after discovering “that listening to music activates wide networks in the brain, including areas responsible for motor actions, emotions, and creativity.” Music reaches and ties itself to many different parts of the brain, which explains why it brings back memories so suddenly and in such detail.
Shania Twain’s “Man I Feel Like a Woman” will always take me back to making up dance routines in my friend Mary’s backyard when I was 8 or 9. Smash Mouth’s “Walking on the Sun” was the song played when my gymnastics team walked out to salute the audience at every home competition for at least 5 years.
Of course, music isn’t the only sense tied to memory (Just ask Proust). I’m sure everyone has experienced a smell or sound or taste that brings memories rushing back. For me it’s the sound of a lawnmower, the scent of freshly cut grass. My parents would always fire up the lawnmower on the first warm, sunny day of the year, so to this day that’s the quintessential sound and smell of Springtime. But music is a little different. As Tiffany Jenkins explains, with the help of author Cretien van Campen:
“Smell differs in that it is a personal memory, whereas there is something very social in our experience of music,” he [van Campen] points out. “Music memories are often shared with peers.” We listen, together. At a party, it is something that we hear whilst dancing or chatting to a friend. We go to concerts or gigs with one another. And it is because music is there as part of lives spent with others – often significant others – that helps make it especially meaningful.
The other day I was standing in line at my local grocery when the check-out guy commented randomly: “Oh man, it’s crazy how music can bring back memories.” He was talking about a Coldplay song playing in the background. I could relate. Coldplay brings back memories for me as well – it was my first ever live concert. His assertion got me thinking again about this connection. Music has always been ingrained in my life, but I didn’t realize until later what a crucial role it played as I began to form an independent identity.
Weezer’s Blue Album brings me back to a car ride through Astoria when I was maybe 13 – riding in the backseat with my friend Carrie, both of us listening to our own portable CD players. I put on anything by Alkaline Trio and I’m 14 again, riding the city bus to my best friend’s house. “Peaches” by The Presidents of the USA plays and I’m 15 at outdoor school. Anything off the album Stadium Arcadium by the Red Hot Chili Peppers and I’m 19 at Sasquatch Music Festival. I created the soundtrack for my life without even knowing it.
But now I’m almost hyper-aware of this phenomenon, and sometimes cautious about sharing music with others, especially significant others. Maybe it’s because I love music so much. I know that if I weave music into shared experience, those songs will stay coupled with that person, even if we breakup. It’s an odd thing to do, perhaps: consciously avoiding the creation of memory. But again it proves just how powerful music can be.
It’s interesting to note that this power isn’t just valuable for warm and fuzzies. A study authored by Petr Janata, associate professor of Psychology at UC Davis, investigates the value of the tie of music to memory. It turns out, “The hub that music activate[s] is located in the medial prefrontal cortex region—right behind the forehead—and one of the last areas of the brain to atrophy over the course of Alzheimer's disease.” And this type of research has led to utilizing music as part of treatment for Alzheimer’s patients, as well as memory recovery for those with brain injuries.
There are exact moments that songs bring back. Environments, weather patterns, physical feelings. I play Ben Howard and I’m 24 in my shared apartment in Rome; Eddie Vedder’s Ukulele Songs and I’m on a train ride in Spain three weeks later. I hear a particular Nocturne by Chopin and I’m 25 in Australia. It’s lovely to think that these good memories are somehow permanent. That even if someday I start to forget the big things in my life, the small things could still come back – best friends from childhood, a lemon-yellow Dodge Dart, my first concert. The playlist of my life always queued up and ready with memories just waiting to be recalled.