Wednesday, June 4, 2014

"On An Emotional Note..." Why Do Songs Bring Memories Back?

“Funny how a melody sounds like a memory
Like a soundtrack to a July Saturday night
Springsteen, Springsteen”

Or so says American country singer Eric Church is his song named after the greatest legend of our time. But I’m not here to tell you how amazing Bruce is – you can figure that out for yourself.

No, in fact a few days ago, a friend picked me up to go to another friend’s birthday party, and the CD in first friend’s car was none other than the soundtrack to me childhood. It brought back a flood of memories of my early years, when the sun was high in the sky, and Boyzone flooded the airwaves. Where a Saturday morning out meant a trip to the local flea market, where I could be treated to one pancake, which I was to savour as I wandered around behind assorted family members. Where you packed your lunch every morning before heading out the door to work, and when Cup-A-Soup was the only guard against those dreaded days when the temperature fell below 20 degrees. When a trip to Durban was a pipe-dream, for it was just so far away. 16 years is a long time when one is only 23, but when that CD plays, it feels like it was just a heartbeat ago. Not even as though I am remembering a time past, but as though I am experiencing everything right in the moment, right now.

A 1999 study by Schulkind, Hennis and Rubin found a strong positive correlation between emotion and the strength of the memory. Now, as I’m not at a university, I am battling to find a full-text version of their article, but it does support some of my own experiences. I find that either the more fondly, or conversely, the less fondly I look back upon my experiences, the stronger the connection is to the song associated with the memory. Lost yet? Let’s examine things further.

I look back upon certain parts of my childhood with a love so fierce that when thinking back, the nostalgia can be so strong that it’s almost painful. Those are the days associated with the Boyzone CD in question here. And why should I have developed such a strong connection? Well, because I killed the damned album, that’s why! In those days, it was on a tape, and because music was less freely available (read: before the internet) back then, when once acquired a tape, one played the thing to death before moving on to another. Same thing happened with a certain Westlife album about four years later (but this time it actually was a CD).

Perhaps, you think that memories of childhood are most easily and strongly invoked by music, but you’d be wrong. Gwen Stefani’s ‘The Sweet Escape’ makes me feel physically ill because it reminds me of the time way back in my first year of university (6 years ago) when I was forced to wake up at 5am every day for a week, and sing the song to an assembled group of boys. They called it bonding – I called it hell.

Moving on, we still haven’t figured out why this happens…

So, a guy called Janata conducted a study to try to figure out exactly that! After playing a random assortment of songs from his subjects’ childhoods, and then asking certain questions, he found that – ta dah! – the most vivid recollections came with the strongest and most important memories*. Combined with a study of brain activity, he was able to confirm his hypothesis that a certain region of the brain links music and memory!

Another fascinating study by Richard Harris of Kansas State University revealed that there was little difference in the strength of the memory brought back by listening to a song vs just thinking about it.+

So what does this mean in terms of rating your favourite song? Would I place Rob Thomas and Santana’s 1999 hit ‘Smooth’ in my top 5 songs ever if I had to hear it today? No, probably not. How much do our memories affect the way we perceive music? I hate ‘The Sweet Escape’ simply for the memories associated with it! If I heard it for the first time today, I’d probably quite like it. It begs the question, do I actually even like 50s music, or do I just love that it reminds me of my grandparents, whom I adore?

I’ll leave you with this thought – what do you do if you begin to associate a favourite song with a situation or a person (say, a boy/girlfriend) that has potential to go pear-shaped? How can I ensure that I don’t think about the guy I was dating in 2014 every time I hear Arctic Monkeys’ ‘Do I Wanna Know’, just because it played on the radio a lot during that month that we dated? I say, simply don’t let it. Make sure you don’t stop listening to the song/album after that era ends, and your brain won’t be able to connect any certain memory with it. If you listen to anything as many times as I’ve listened to Coldplay’s ‘Paradise’ in the past three years, when you listen to it again in 10 years time, your brain will be so bombarded with thoughts and feelings and memories, that it won’t be able to pick one, and you’ll feel … nothing.

And one last thing: remember not to overplay any specific album when you’re particularly depressed. No one likes a girl who cries into her travel mug because for some reason Mark Stoermer’s debut single ‘Everybody Loves the Girl’ just came on shuffle on her iPod.

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