One Song, A Thousand Memories

one song

A friend shared this photo on Facebook yesterday, and it really hit me how true it is, how much one song can affect us.  This post is not going to be about London or living in the UK, but it’s a post that nearly every human being on earth can relate to.  We often associate songs with certain people or events in our lives.  Maybe it’s the lyrics of the song, or maybe it’s the situation in which you first heard the song played.  Whatever the case may be, that song will always bring you back to a moment in your life.

But why is this?  From a psychological standpoint, it has been found through scientific study that “listening to music engages broad neural networks in the brain, including brain regions responsible for motor actions, emotions, and creativity.”**  In one study, music was even effective in getting patients with severe brain injuries to recall personal memories.  In another study, Petr Janata, associate professor of psychology at the University of California Davis, found that music triggers responses from certain areas of the brain that are responsible for memories, acting as a “soundtrack for a mental movie that starts playing in our head.”** Specifically, music activates the limbic system, part of the brain involved in processing emotions and controlling memory.  In his paper Music, memory, and emotion, Dr. Lutz Jäncke, professor of psychology at the University of Zurich, discusses another study regarding music and memories:

“Another recent study examined the memories and
emotions that are often evoked when hearing musical
pieces from one’s past. In this experiment, subjects were
presented with a large set of short musical excerpts (not
longer than 30 seconds per excerpt) of past popular songs.
Using a set of newly designed questionnaires, the authors
found that, on average, 30% of the presented songs evoked
autobiographical memories. In addition, most of the songs
also evoked various strong emotions, which were mainly
positive ones such as nostalgia.”***

Dr. Jäncke writes in detail about other studies that have focused on music associated with memories and emotions, and you can find the link to his paper at the end of this post.

So what does all this really mean?

Because music triggers strong emotional responses and because emotions are involved in processing memories, music may actually help form our memories.  These songs that we associate with people and events are woven into the memories themselves, and as a result we often recall a memory along with its “soundtrack.”

Music is a very powerful thing.  Scientifically, it has been shown to stimulate people’s minds, even those of people who have suffered brain damage.  But it goes beyond that; music penetrates our souls, working itself into our lives in a deep and personal way.  Taylor Swift’s lyrics may remind you of your first love.  Beyonce’s “Halo” might bring back memories of you high school prom.  And I’m sure for many people, the music of Jimi Hendrix mentally transports them back to Woodstock 1969.  We often find that these memories are very specific; one can visualize with great clarity the look in your then-boyfriend’s eyes or the solemn funeral procession of a loved one.  Whatever song it is and whatever feelings and memories it evokes, we can all agree that our world would be rather colorless without music.  There’s a great quote that I often see posted by musicians and other artists:

earth without art

Because of the significance of art and music in our lives, we must never forget to encourage creativity and imagination in our society.  We need to support the people who create this art and allow them to share their creative process with the world.  Recently, there was outrage over a subway musician in New York City being arrested for busking.  There has been no evidence suggesting that he was in any way breaking the law by publicly performing his music in the subway, and yet NYPD smothered his creativity by taking his guitar out of his hands and leading him away in handcuffs.  It’s a well-known fact that as school districts suffer budget cuts, arts programs are the first to go.  If music isn’t taught to children in school, where is our future generation of musicians going to come from?  We as a society need to pull together to show support for creativity.  Not everyone can be a doctor, a lawyer, or an engineer.  That’s not to say we don’t need these people in our society; on the contrary, we have a great need for them.  But for some people, these professions won’t be enough to satisfy their creative hunger.  We need to support performers and artists, rather than discourage them from going after their artistic pursuits.  The world needs music; it seems our future memories are depending on the music created today.




We As Artists

I discovered a fantastic quote today on the website of pianist Nadine Andre*: “Our sense of hearing is the first to develop and the last to leave us.”  Whether or not this is technically true is of no consequence; our sense of hearing is such a vital part of our everyday lives that is often taken for granted.  As a result, music is a major influence in our day-to-day routine.  Just going from my house to school each day, I see hundreds of people on the tube with earbuds jammed in their ears and headphones around their heads, listening to their favorite artists on their commutes to work and school.  Nearly every day, I hear a street performer playing the guitar or the violin in the tube station.  Our society is saturated by music; it’s all around us.  Pay close attention for 24 hours, and you’ll discover just how great an influence music has in our daily lives.  Just some food for thought.

Today, we had a vocal masterclass at Trinity with baritone Roderick Williams.  I think I speak for everyone in attendance when I say that Mr. Williams gave an absolutely outstanding class today.  Not only was he a humorous and dynamic presenter, but he also had an easygoing, personable manner that put the performers at ease with him.  He made some excellent points about how to connect not only with one’s audience but also with one’s character role.  Mr. Williams suggests drawing emotion from one’s real experiences, which I think is the best way to truly connect with the music.  The first performer sang a very dark and sinister Britten aria from the opera Billy Budd, and he mentioned after he finished the piece, “It makes me want to crawl out of my own skin.”  The text of the piece was, certainly, very horrible, and Mr. Williams gave the following advice for connecting with this difficult character.  He said that when you’re first getting accustomed to an evil character such as this, you must allow it to wash over you.  “There may be days where you go home to your flat and just cry, and let out the emotions from playing such a horrible character.”  Once you’ve come to terms with the character’s evil nature, you can develop the ability to “put on the suit” of the character, drawing perhaps on a dark place you’ve experienced in your life.  Then, when you’re done performing that role, you can “take off the suit” and become your normal self again.  I thought this was an interesting point about putting on a suit.  Essentially, that’s what we do when we act on stage.  We are not the characters ourselves, and these characters may be, like in the Britten aria, nearly impossible to relate to.  However, by drawing on personal experiences and recalling actual emotions we’ve felt at some point in our lives, we can become the characters for the short time we play them.

Another interesting bit from Mr. Williams: “We are our own harshest critics; we don’t need national news to tear us down.”  This is so true; as artists, we tend to have this overwhelming self-consciousness, no matter how good we sound.  My friend shared this diagram with me, and it relates perfectly to the point I’m making:


We as artists often find ourselves facing severe doubts and a lack of confidence in our abilities.  The famous Italian tenor Franco Corelli was well-known for his overwhelming stage fright, widely believed to be the cause of his rather early retirement.  He would get so nervous, experiencing severe anxiety and stage fright before performing, stemming from his doubt about his talent.  He didn’t believe that he had a good voice and perhaps was afraid of disappointing his audience.  This, of course, was the exact opposite, as his incredible talent is still admired world-wide, over a decade after his death.  I think all performers get varying degrees of stage fright before a show.  Every voice teacher I’ve ever had has told me that it is completely normal to get nervous before you sing, even suggesting that it’s a good thing.  If a singer gets no nerves at all, he or she will become careless in his or her singing.  Nerves give us a certain edge, an energy that is absolutely necessary to give one’s best performance.  Of course, as in Mr. Corelli’s case, it can get to a point where the anxiety is too much and begins to take a toll on one’s mental and physical health.  On the other side of the spectrum, we have moments as artists that are extremely narcissistic, particularly after finding some sort of success in our careers.  If enough people tell you how good you are, you’ll eventually start to believe it.  We do need to have a certain amount of confidence in order to bring ourselves to perform in front of an audience.  As the above diagram suggests, it’s the meeting point of self-confidence and self-doubt where art is created.  I think that as young musicians, we are on a journey to find this point, to strike the right balance between the two.

One more quote from Nadine Andre*: “In a world of growing commercialism and electronic media, our need to find inspiration and beauty in our lives is also growing. I believe that music making is one of the most successful ways we can do this… it is our feelings that should guide us when we manipulate sounds to create music.”

It is our responsibility as musicians to share our emotions and art with the world.  If we are able to convey those emotions effectively, people will start to listen and connect with our art.

 *quotes from Nadine Andre taken from her website: