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Memory and Music


It fascinates me how music stimulates memory and emotion more powerfully than anything else I know. I often wonder if this is as true for others as it is for me. Generally, when I hear a song from my past, especially one I haven’t heard in a while, I experience a flood of emotion – ever so brief – that brings me back to the feeling state I had when the song originally entered my awareness. Nothing else does this to me in quite the same way – not seeing an old friend, not looking at old photographs, not thinking about the past. Sure, all those things spark some memories, but not nearly as powerfully. Based on these music “flashbacks,” I can often tell you the exact year a song came out or was popular on the charts, because I can equate it to what was going on in my life at the time. Is this normal? Is this more pronounced in introverts, who may pay more attention to such things?

There is one song in particular that affects me in such a profound way that it stops me in my tracks. It was playing at Dunkin’ Donuts today when I entered, and it threw me into a momentary trance. I probably haven’t heard it in a few years, and when I do it’s usually by chance. I know its power, and therefore almost never listen to it intentionally. It’s too special, and I don’t want to weaken its mysterious powers. It whisks me back to a time in my life that was precious, my late teens when I felt more hopeful, powerful, and free than I ever had, or ever would again. The world was mine. There was nothing I couldn’t be, do or achieve. I was fearless. I was trusting. I was optimistic. I was everything that I no longer am. I had just graduated high school, started a business, and fallen in love (well, infatuation) for the first time in my life. Emotions were running wild and everything seemed to finally be going my way. That was before the crash.

It was the spring of 1982, a year that would deliver the best, and worst, emotional experiences of my life, a banner year that has not been equaled to this day. Many Top 40 songs from the period spark memories of that idyllic spring for me, but the song in question reigns supreme. I’m not really sure why. Is it something special about the song itself – the beat, the rhythm, the infectious melody? The vapid words hold no significance to me whatsoever, though the title is oddly appropriate. Did I perhaps hear it at a key moment or thought process? Maybe that’s supposing too much and it just got more radio play than the others. I’ll likely never know. But whatever it does to my brain, my emotions, and my ageing soul is as good as a time machine, as if no years or experiences have passed to soil that distant time and place, to ruin the circumstances that had me feeling so hopeful and alive. Before disappointment, before heartache, before cynicism. Before burgeoning events in my life left my control. Before the pesky intrusion of reality, waving its needle about recklessly to burst my unsustainable bubble.


Memory researchers say that every time we have a memory, it weakens. This is because when we remember something, we’re not remembering the original experience, but rather the last time we remembered it. We’re pulling up a copy of a copy of a copy, degraded by loss of content. So those cherished memories we hold probably aren’t very accurate. Perhaps we’ve embellished them a little; innocently¬† filled in the gaps, changed a few details to be more to our liking. This is where my song comes in to save the day. Whatever memories it sparks they seem authentic and original, brief and titillating as they may be. They are preserved, intact and unsullied. It is an enticing emotional cocktail, one that makes me every bit as uninhibited and carefree as a real cocktail, a strange mixture of excitement, adventure and despair. Basically, a synthesis of everything I felt that year. But, like trying to recall a dream, I just can’t hold on to the experience, and the longer the song plays the more the images fade. You can’t fool flashbacks.

I suppose I was pretty naive back then, uncharacteristically trusting, and blindly in-the-moment with no concern for the future. These traits aren’t necessarily bad except that they were in the extreme, an extreme that I gradually took to the opposite end of the emotional spectrum. Ever since that eventful year, I’ve been on a regressive journey toward pessimism, isolation and distrust. Life isn’t going to catch me with my guard down again.

My challenge is to try to recapture some of the hopeful, naive me who isn’t so sullied by life, who doesn’t think he’s experienced all that he can, who doesn’t know everything. He hides in that seductive song, and I need to find him before he fades away forever into the ephemeral fog of memory.


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