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.


The 200-Year-Old Barber

I have recordings of over five-hundred operas. It would take me almost two months of non-stop listening to hear them all. Alas, I only have an hour of listening in the car each day (perhaps I should get a job further away), and a small amount before bedtime each night, both of which I take full advantage. There are favorites, of course (based on what I’ve heard so far), as well as desert island must-haves (even though, were I stranded on a desert island, I would finally have the glorious opportunity to listen to them all and, in an age when all of my operas can fit in the palm of my hand, I wouldn’t really have to choose). Carmen. Aida. The Magic Flute. Turandot. Among the priceless gems is Rossini’s brilliant work The Barber of Seville, which he composed in just three weeks when he was twenty-four years old. It was his seventeenth opera, some of them written when he was a child.


Rossini at 24

When I was a child, I spent summers at my grandmother’s house and watched a lot of TV. Bugs Bunny cartoons were a staple of my early-seventies television diet, and those cartoons used a surprising amount of classical music. I mostly remember hearing Mendelssohn and Rossini, even though I didn’t know their names, and I suspect my love of classical music and opera began there. One memorable episode featured Bugs and Elmer Fudd in The Rabbit of Seville, with heavy use of the famous overture from Rossini’s similarly-titled opera. Another episode, What’s Opera, Doc?, featured the equally famous “Largo al factotum” from the same opera (this one you’ve heard: “Figaro! Figaro! Fiiiiiigaro!”). It would be thirty years before I heard the complete two-hour opera, because, like most average Joes, I thought opera too inaccessible and esoteric for an average Joe. It would be ten more years before I gave myself permission to go see it live, and, just this year until I recognized the genius of the first act’s closing sextet, “Ma signor!”

Rossini had a gift for starting off a composition quietly, then slowly and steadily ratcheting it up to a frenetic and thrilling crescendo. He used this technique in his two most famous overtures, those to Barber of Seville and William Tell, and he really masters it in “Ma Signor.” In this glorious piece, six people, very confused from the recent happenings on stage, are singing different parts all at once, first quietly and slowly, then with increasing urgency and volume until the piece explodes in the musical equivalent of a fireworks finale. When I listen to it with headphones, which is necessary in order to hear all that’s going on in the background, I never cease to marvel at its technical brilliance and utter perfection. It has a satisfying mathematical precision that makes order out of chaos, which perhaps is why I like it so much.

I’m glad to be living in a time when I can easily listen to this and other works (or “opera,” which is the Latin word for “works”) any time I choose, a luxury that no one had in Rossini’s day. In fact, he took advantage of this fact by recycling his own overtures, using the same one in several different operas. Who would remember? Regardless, the man was a genius, right up there with Mozart, Beethoven and Tchaikovsky. He wrote 39 operas in all, and retired early to live out the latter part of his life as a gourmand and bon-vivant (the restaurant dish tournedos Rossini is named after him). This year marks the 200th anniversary of The Barber of Seville, still considered one of the best comic operas ever written.


At the Metropolitan Opera House, New York City

Songs of life

Nietzsche said that without music, life would be a mistake.

If there’s one thing introverts and extroverts can agree on liking it’s music, though I suspect they experience it in very different ways. I imagine an extreme extrovert being drawn mostly to high-energy (dance) music, and an introvert to something much more sedate and introspective. I prefer mostly the latter, though I am not opposed to high-energy music. I have my extroverted moods.

When I was in my teens I was very taken with popular music. I used to listen to the Casey Kasem Top 40 countdown every Sunday, writing down each song that made the list and recording many of them from the radio onto my portable cassette recorder (how primitive!) It was an enjoyable hobby that I engaged in religiously, and certain songs really spoke to me and created a soundtrack for my youth. When I hear one of them today, I experience an instant flashback to old feeling states I haven’t had in many years, often accompanied by a brief thrill of hope or, occasionally, despair. It’s a time machine to the ways I used to feel, whether good or bad, all sparked by familiar sound. Perhaps this is why so many of us listen to music from our youth as we get older, shunning newer material. I couldn’t tell you who tops the charts today, and I suspect we all end up thinking that the music from our teens and twenties was the best.

As I got a little older music continued to move me deeply, especially as I fell in and out of love (or infatuation) and experienced heartbreak and loneliness. Here’s where my fondness for Neil Diamond’s introspective songwriting began, as well as my love of Tchaikovsky’s emotionally-charged compositions. I began attending rock concerts in the early ’80s, drawn to their larger-than-life excitement and visual spectacle. This strikes me as odd, as it doesn’t seem like something that would appeal to a typical introvert. Admittedly, I did feel awkward when people would stand and clap or dance to the music, as music is something I experience much more internally. Inside I may be clapping and dancing, but certainly not outside. Regardless, I kept going back and ended up seeing Neil Diamond about 12 times, along with more rock-oriented acts like The Police, Journey, Styx, and Bryan Adams. Yet the songs I liked best were always the ballads, the slow material with meaningful lyrics – Faithfully, Babe, Heaven – and not the stuff that got you out of your chair (or had you standing on it, which I did once and fell off).

I’ve often wished I was musically inclined, as being a songwriter seems like a fantastic and rewarding occupation (assuming you were any good). But I know words better than music, so lyricist is the closest I could ever hope to come.