Making Musical Memories

One of the many viral videos making the Facebook rounds depicts a fairly uncommunicative elderly man, Henry, spending his time seated in a wheelchair, eyes cast downward; he doesn’t even recognize his own daughter. The clip then shows how he is “awakened” and begins a lively conversation after listening to 1940s music. (Click here to view the video.)

Several recent studies, including those by, have proved how old, familiar songs can jog our minds and conjure up positive memories. This year’s Oscar winning Iron Lady drove home that point in scenes where the aging former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher (via the inimitable Meryl Streep) travels to a happier, more lucid place while hearing “Shall We Dance.”

For most of us, songs that accompanied our lives’ highs and lows have the power to transport us back in time. Your “personal soundtrack” may include tunes that recall the lazy, carefree summer days of your youth; the first 45 (or LP, cassette or CD) that you purchased with your own money; the song that was popular when you and your first girl- or boyfriend got together and the one that soothed you when you broke up.

You probably feel nostalgic when you hear a hit song from the first concert you attended, music that you listened to in your first apartment or a tune that you heard over and over during a fun road trip. Most of us remember graduation party and wedding songs, albums our parents and kids enjoyed and soundtracks from popular films and Broadway musicals.

When we were younger, some of us even created theme cassette tapes to express certain moods or sentiments for friends (one of my brothers was especially proud of the “She Dumped Me” tape he handed out to buddies in crisis). So, we can relate to, and laugh at, John Cusak and Jack Black’s characters as they discuss Black’s totally inappropriate mourning tape, “Top 5 Songs About Death” in the 2000 film High Fidelity. (Feel free to list songs from your own “personal soundtracks” in the comment box below.)

Even today, when we serendipitously hear songs from our pasts, we remember not just what we were doing, but how we were feeling at that time. “What seems to happen is that a piece of familiar music serves as a soundtrack for a mental movie that starts playing in our head,” explains Petr Janata, a University of California, Davis, cognitive neuroscientist, in a summary of his landmark study in the journal Cerebral Cortex. “It calls back memories of a particular person or place, and you might all of a sudden see that person’s face in your mind’s eye.”

And so, I’m struggling to understand what memories and emotions today’s music will evoke for my children in the future. I may sound like an old fuddy-duddy, but I can’t help but wonder if my kids will think fondly of family ski trips when they hear Nicki Minaj’s “Starships” (“Let’s do this one one time, can’t stop, we’re higher than a M&*#er F^#%er”).

The fact is, I don’t know what they’re listening to most of the time. When we get in the car, they immediately plug in their ear buds and turn their smart phone playlists onto “Shuffle.” While they’re doing homework, they’re simultaneously listening to rap via headphones attached to their laptops.

Because music has become such a personal experience, enjoyed through phones and computers, will this generation be able to recall “shared” music experiences such as sitting in a dorm room playing the same record over and over, or singing along to hit songs in a car while driving nowhere on a weekend night? Will today’s teens have memories to match those of the older baby boomers who, with Dick Clark’s recent passing, reminisce about watching and dancing along to “American Bandstand” with friends?

I guess what’s most important is that they are learning to love music – be that as it may – and they get positive benefits from listening to it.  As researchers at Penn State University’s Altoona campus recently discovered, hearing almost any kind of music – as long it sounds pleasing to us – can elevate our positive moods and chase away negative thoughts. As one of the researchers, associate professor of psychology Valerie N. Stratton, notes, “If you like music and choose to listen to it, it’s probably going to make you feel better regardless of what type it is.”

Perhaps my sons’ s current playlists, which include hits by Chris Brown, Rihanna and Pitbull (my daughter prefers Adele, Katy Perry and One Direction), really do make them happy.  And who am I to say that hearing Li’l Wayne’s line “Young angel, young lie and im done tryin, I’m jus doin, who’s drinkin’ cause im buyin’” won’t spring them to life 75 years from now?

So, I’m making a point to absorb new songs and make musical memories with my kids. When I drive them to sports practices, I ask them to unplug the headphones and plug their iPods into the car’s AUX cord. I’m trying to enjoy “their” music. In fact, I even found myself bobbing my head along to Jessie J’s “Price Tag” (“Everybody look to the left, everybody look to the right”) the other day.

Now, that’s a visual I’m sure my 12-year-old will never forget.

– Linda Williams Rorem, 23 April 2012

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