Memory and Music

I find the science of how music connects to memory to be fascinating.  Not only does it aid in language acquisition, it actively connects with our “autobiographical memories,” according to a study published by Cerebral Cortex and as reported in 2004 in LiveScience.  The author writes, “(E)vocation of autobiographical memories and associated emotions by music counts among the most poignant experiences associated with music,” and shows in his study that music is tied up in our memories because they are both activated in the same spot of our brains, the medial pre-frontal cortex (MPFC).  This is true even for Alzheimer’s patients—they can “recall songs from their distant past,” even when they have lost other, substantial memory, because the MPFC is one of the last areas in the brain to be affected by their disease.

The summer I was 15, my parents and I took one of the best trips of our lifetimes.  With our little pop-up trailer, we drove from Salt Lake City to Washington, D.C., and back home through parts of the south.  We ate at a fantastic Italian restaurant on Dupont Circle, stood in awe while watching the changing of the guard at Arlington, toured Monticello, got a flat tire in the scorching heat of Oklahoma, witnessed the most incredible lightening storm through the panhandle of Texas and climbed through the ruins of Mesa Verde.

Of course, being 15, and an only child, much of the time I spent “tuned out” on my Walkman (speaking of memories).  So, when I wasn’t listening to Frankenstein on tape (now they’re called “audiobooks,” but I still find myself inclined to call it a book-on-tape, as it actually was “on tape”), I found myself engrossed in U2’s Rattle and Hum, which had just come out.  It seemed the perfect soundtrack for the trip—just enough rebellious spirit in the music to quench my need to disengage from my parents from time to time.  And lyrics that, more often than not, seemed to match our experience on the road: “like a drifter needs a room,” and “a highway speaks of deserts dry, of cool green valleys.”  I ask you, is there any better place to hear “The Star-Spangled Banner,” (at the time, my first exposure to Jimi Hendrix) than when you’ve just come from a walk along the Mall?  Even today, when I hear those opening lines, “This is a song Charles Manson stole from the Beatles, we’re stealing it back,” I cannot help but be transported immediately to the back seat of the car, my dad at the helm, crawling along on the scenic BWI parkway.

Several years ago, I made a mixed-CD of my favorite Kindermusik songs.  (Yes, they used to be called “mixed-tapes,” and yes, I know that people now put together “playlists.” I am somewhat of a Luddite, cut me some slack?)  At any rate, the other night, as we were winding down after dinner, my preschooler decided she wanted to listen to some music, and chose this particular Kindermusik CD.  Soon, “Los Pescaditos” came on and I found myself on my living room floor, in New Mexico, holding my baby boy (who, at that point, was about 15 months old), with my oldest daughter and husband and all the other Kindermusik parents I was teaching at the time.  It was such a calm moment of connection, not just with my children, but also with people who I had come to love during our short residency there.  Lullabies in Kindermusik have been by far my most favorite moments in class, and now that my youngest is in with the preschoolers, they are by far the things I miss the most (probably because of this same music/memory connection).  Not only did this lullaby calm my stressed-out mama soul at the end of a long day the other night, it reminded me of the many times I have felt joy and comfort just being present with my kids.  As much as I love Rattle and Hum, that moment was infinitely more nourishing for my soul.

I talk about mindfulness a lot in this blog—about the importance of taking time to just notice what is going on around us and being present for our kids.  I probably do it because it is something I have come to really value, but it is also one of the things that most eludes me as a parent.  Even still, I consider it to be a gift that I have such a rich history with the Kindermusik songs that those memories and those moments present themselves to me at unexpected times.

What are some of your favorite music and memory connections?  Please, share!

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