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Music and memory


Music touches us in ways that little else can. It inspires us to dance, weep, laugh, sing, smile. Last weekend, I was studying for my psychology midterm when the song “Banana Pancakes” by Jack Johnson started playing. Listening to this song reminded me instantly of the summer before senior year of high school, when I lived on a boat for three weeks doing a marine biology scuba diving program. It was a pleasant return to fond memories with shipmates and long days spent exploring the underwater world or sunbathing on the roof of our boat. This type of experience is fairly common in humans — we all have songs that can transport us to particular moments in our lives and evoke the emotions we felt during that experience.

If my life were a playlist, the first track would be “You Are My Sunshine,” which my mother would sing to me when I was a child. I can remember sitting in my mother’s lap in the gray-blue rocking chair in my bedroom, listening to her softly sing to me. But after this, my musical memory gets muddled.

I think in some ways it’s unrealistic to think of the music in our life as being arranged in a neat, chronological playlist. For me, the important songs in my life form more of a web, connected to each other in various ways, whether through people in my life, through particular emotions or through hobbies I associate with each song. For example, while the song “Banana Pancakes” brings me back to my weeks living on a boat, it also reminds me of a friend in high school who played this song on his guitar and of peacefully drizzly days spent in the coziness of my home. In this way, a single song can be connected to many different memories and people. And one song can trigger the next: “Banana Pancakes” might in turn make me think of more songs I listened to on my boat over the summer or of another tune I associate with my friend, creating an interconnected network of music.

So why are we able to associate memory with song? Modern-day psychology has some of the answers. Part of the strong link between emotion and memory has to do with the fact that we remember words better when they have rhyme and rhythm (like songs do). But beyond this, the strong link between memory and music can be explained through our different types of memories. Explicit memory retrieves concrete information related to facts, such as what we ate for dinner last night. Implicit memory is not consciously recalled and can trigger emotional connections when we hear music that was significant to us in the past.

This distinction between implicit and explicit memory is also important because explicit memory, not implicit memory, is damaged in people who have diseases like Alzheimer’s. This means that Alzheimer patients actually have strong emotional responses to music. Music & Memory is a non-profit organization whose mission is to provide elderly people with music (particularly Alzheimer’s patients) in order to bring back these music-triggered memories in their brains. The key to the music the patients listen to is that it is personalized: They are hooked up to iPods that play their favorite songs from back when they were younger. When their favorite music is played, the patients light up, sing along with the songs and nod their heads to mirror the rhythm of the music. This, to me, is an beautiful example of how music can allow for connection in our world even when an individual may be struggling to remember their own reality.

In fact, one of Stanford’s on-campus groups shares music with the elderly in a similar way: Side by Side is a community service group which performs music at nursing homes in the Bay Area, singing songs from the 1920s-60s. Angelina Lo ‘18, one of the group’s co-facilitators, shared one of her favorite experiences in an email, saying that, “Last year, while singing ‘Come Fly With Me’ to an elderly man in our audience, an impish grin crept up onto his face in the middle of the song. Curious, at a rest in the song, I asked him why he was smiling. He launched into a tale about how he was a pilot and how when he was younger, he would take short flights from San Francisco to Oakland or another Bay Area city with his ‘lady friend’ and sing ‘Come Fly With Me’ as they were getting into the air. Calling up memories like that can be very meaningful and joyful for our audience, and hearing stories like these bring me (and the other members of our group) a lot of joy and perspective.”

Side by Side’s other co-facilitator, Sam Starkey ‘19, commented, “Music has a special way of bringing back memories — that’s why we choose songs that our audience members may have heard in their teenage/young-adult years. Also, music has a way of building connections between people that might be separated by things like age, health and life experiences.”

The song “What a Wonderful World” will always hold a special place in my heart. It’s my father’s favorite song, and whenever I hear it, I think of the last Fall Dinner Dance at my high school (a tradition where fathers and daughters come together for a night of dining and dancing). The funny part of all of this is that “What a Wonderful World” wasn’t even the song I danced to with my father.

To some extent, music can also create false memories in us. Taylor Swift’s “Welcome to New York” instantly conjures up memories of strolling through the streets of New York City, even though I’ve only visited the city briefly and am certain the scenes I create in my mind never took place. This can be the power of music: the ability to create realities that are so vivid, they are sometimes completely disparate from our actual experiences. While this can be disconcerting, it is also somewhat miraculous that our minds can create these false realities, that we have the ability to manufacture these experiences because of the music that others have created.

In “Ragtime,” E.L. Doctorow writes: “The melodies were like bouquets. There seemed to be no other possibilities for life than those delineated by the music … the boy perceived it as light touching various places in space, accumulating in intricate patterns until the entire room was made to glow with its own being.”

This quote, to me, captures another aspect of music: its ability to exist as almost like another entity. Doctorow describes not only the “intricate patterns” music creates in our minds but also the overarching sense that music is transcendent. One of my favorite bands, The Mowgli’s, did a small gig in Santa Cruz last spring. I went to the show with a couple of friends after just having read this quote for my literature class in high school. The enthusiasm of the band members and audience, and the reverberating music in the small restaurant, created an atmosphere which I felt was aptly captured by Doctorow’s words — one in which the whole room was aware of the power of the music we were experiencing. The concert also reminded me of how music can connect us with those around us — experiencing the same music with others makes us feel like we’re a part of some larger collective identity.

This unity is especially important in light of the recent political chaos in our country. We seem to be a country divided by party lines, religion, race and class. These divisions are discouraging and can by no means be solved overnight. But as I reflected on our factious nation, I was reminded of that night I spent in Santa Cruz with my friends. While this setting is perhaps not a satisfactory microcosm of our nation as a whole, it was, to me, an example of something that brings humans together, that connects us easily and effortlessly.

Think of the common lullabies we sing to our children, or of crowds standing together and singing the national anthem at football games. These songs bring groups of people together, increasing social cohesion. Music can and should be a force to connect us all, and it can be comforting to remember just how powerful music is in influencing not only our individual memories but our collective sense of identity and community.


Contact Julie Plummer at jplummer ‘at’

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