In DepthMusic and Memory

By | posted on 15th May 2015

I'm not someone who necessarily looks that deeply into how music is produced or even conceived, although I possibly should bearing in mind that I was studying to be a sound engineer many moons ago. That dream sadly never came to fruition, but being the inquisitive person that I am, I still have a fascination with all things music and am resigned to understanding it as best as I can. I am currently reading the book "How Music Works" by the brilliant David Byrne and am looking forward to gaining some insight into this world via his prose. In the meantime though, my mind is still actively questioning.

I was recently on a train journey to London and, as always, I was carrying my trusty notebook and pen so I could write down anything that came into my mind as a possible new article. Staring out of the window and seeing the familiar scenery approaching the outskirts of London, I remembered growing up there and had various other memories of days gone by. I then had an idea. So into my notebook I wrote the words "music and memory or association". I also wrote some other bits and bobs around this and did a bit of googling. It was the start of a train of thought (literally) and the thought was this. Why does music link to memory and what does this mean?

We all have certain songs that are related to events in our lives. For example, when people get married they have a first dance and this song then becomes intrinsically important to their lives from then on. It will always be "our song" because of that. You may remember that a specific track was playing the first time you saw "x" across a crowded dance floor and suddenly realised that you wanted to spend the rest of your life with them. It may well be why "Saturday Night" by Whigfield means so much to you, but who am I to judge?

Anyway, this thought also reminded me of a recent radio show that I had been listening to where the host, Claire, asked folks to get in touch and tell her which song related to various events in your life like your first crush, when you were a teenager or when you left home etc. I had a ponder and ended up joining in. This also got me reminiscing about when I was younger and the various reasons why my songs choices were important to me. Claire had asked for the song that represented your first crush and mine was "If I Can't Change Your Mind" by Sugar. The reason I picked this song is because it was on a mixtape that my first real crush made for me when I was about 19. It's still a firm favourite with me and I have to say that when I listen to it now I am always reminded of him. It's quite odd really as I haven't seen him in person for nearly 20 years, but when I hear the jangly guitar of this track I can see his face as clear as day. And that's what makes the link between music and association so very interesting.

Also in my notes was a line that said 'Glenn T – cowboy films'. I'm sure this will mean absolutely nothing to you, so let me try to explain my thinking around this bizarre notation. I am a big fan of the band Squeeze and in particular Glenn Tilbrook. Glenn has released some solo albums and also recorded a tour video when he travelled around America in an RV. As I was thinking about memory related to music, I recalled Glenn telling a story on his tour video about how when he was a small child he used to like watching cowboy films. Not very interesting so far, but just bear with me. He said that his memories of the films were linked to the sounds he heard in them rather than the picture he'd seen on the screen. He would hear the sound of metal on metal and place this as a cowboy scraping a spoon across a metal plate while eating beans. He did not recall the colours or what was in the background picture, it was all about the sounds that were being made. I find this fascinating.

I read about "Music-related memory" on Wikipedia and the opening paragraph says this:

Musical memory refers to the ability to remember music-related information, such as melodic content and other progressions of tones or pitches. The differences found between linguistic memory and musical memory have led researchers to theorize that musical memory is encoded differently from language and may constitute an independent part of the phonological loop. The use of this term is problematic, however, since it implies input from a verbal system, whereas music is in principle nonverbal.

Interesting stuff, but not really what I was aiming for. Looking at savantism or child prodigies who can play 10 instruments at the age of 6 is a bit beyond me. I also read an article on some new psychology studies around the link between memory and music. Again, not quite what I wanted to delve into, but worth a read none the less. Check it out here.

I think what I am more intrigued about is the relationship between music and how it messes with your emotions. Why does hearing certain pieces of music make you happy or sad and why do we feel the need to attach certain feelings to it? I also wonder why I can remember the lyrics to songs I haven't heard in years, but I have no idea what I did last week? It's a strange thing that you can recall all the words to a random song like "Snooker Loopy" by Chas and Dave and yet I can't remember to pick up milk on the way home. It must perhaps be related to the part of your brain that holds what is basically useless information.

It could be that music is such an emotional tie because it's more important to certain people. I would class everything music related as a hobby of mine so I am always focused on learning about it, be it a new artist, reading about it or a new way of obtaining songs. Perhaps if you don't consider this to be an area of interest to you it wouldn't have such an impact. Although I'm pretty sure that going back to Claire and the song requests on her radio show, that we all have records that mean something to us for whatever reason. It could well be that the bands your grew up with when you first started to take an interest in music have stuck with you throughout your life. I know that I attach my adoration for my hero Neil Finn to the fact that I discovered the music of Crowded House when I was in my teens and at the age where I was looking for something to speak to me about my life. I found that with Neil and his band and he has been something of a constant companion to me ever since.

I used to travel by train a lot in my early twenties and back then I didn't have my beloved iPod with me as they hadn't been invented yet (yes I am that old). Instead, I used to take with me my personal CD player and one of those CD holders where you could just carry the discs in a zipped pouch. The effort of picking only a few discs to take along was torture, but I always seemed to have "Ether Song" by Turin Brakes each and every time. When I listen to tracks from that album now, I can still sense those old train journeys from London to Liverpool and I remember how it made me feel. That album is my travelling friend and when the first track "Blue Hour" opens with the drum machine, I associate it with the train pulling out of Euston station and heading up the railway tracks northwards. I haven't made that particular journey for well over 10 years now, but I'm transported back to those days whenever I play that record.

I suppose it's easy to say that this is just human nature or memory working in the usual way. The same thing happens with more or less everything around us such as food we've eaten at specific places or certain books we've read. What makes the link with music so interesting to me though is the feelings that it brings with it. I mean, I can probably recall the first time I tried Chinese food, but it doesn't really bring out any emotion in me. It was no doubt very nice and I still like it now, but does it make my happy thinking about it? Not really, no. When I hear that song by Sugar playing though, now there's a completely different story. I find myself smiling and thinking about the person that made me a tape a very long time ago. And that's the power of music. The images it conjures up and the feelings it brings with it are something wonderful and I really do hope the things I am listening to now will continue to have this effect on me for a very long time to come.

This article originally appeared on Nicola's own blog.