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.

**http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-athletes-way/201312/why-do-the-songs-your-past-evoke-such-vivid-memories

***http://www.biomedcentral.com/content/pdf/jbiol82.pdf

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Imitate, Assimilate, Innovate

Some really interesting bits of information and insight I’ve picked up today from my lessons.  The first “fun fact” that both surprised and somewhat disturbed me is that 80% of music on iTunes has NEVER been listened to or downloaded.  That’s a lot of music!  So many artists are putting their work out there unsuccessfully, while the same twenty pop artists get thousands of downloads per day.  We had a really great lecture today from cellist, composer, and musicologist David Bahanovich on the evolving world of music production, and he gave us some excellent insight into what it takes to be a successful musician in today’s society.  As all musicians are, I’m sure, well-aware, the music industry has undergone immense changes in response to the evolution of technology.  Massive corporations like Apple, Spotify, and Amazon have changed the way music is consumed, so that the audience is more likely to download songs and albums online rather than buying the physical album in stores.  YouTube has also provided an opportunity for the audience to pirate music.  If you’re making millions as a pop artist by selling out stadium shows and marketing merchandise, this may not affect you as much; however, if you’re a struggling artist trying to sell your work, the last thing you need is for people to steal your music off of YouTube.  It’s a tough situation, but essentially the solution is to adapt and market yourself in a way that targets a specific audience.  As Mr.Bahanovich put it, we can’t simply play music; we must create an experience, something our audience has never seen before and will be likely to remember.  We have to find a way to stand out from all the “background noise,” the 80% of music that is never heard.

After this engaging lecture, I had my jazz improvisation class.  I really love this class, and I’ve been searching for an opportunity to improve my skills in vocal jazz.  I have never gotten the chance to receive formal training in vocal jazz, so this class is a great experience for me.  We’re currently working on gaining a better understanding of the chord structure in popular jazz standards.  Today, my teacher gave us such a fantastic anecdote on learning to play/sing jazz that I just had to share it.  He likened learning improvisation to learning a new language; when learning a language, you try to imitate those who have mastered the language by imitating the accent, the sentence structure, etc.  It’s essentially the same with jazz.  A great place to start is by imitating the masters of jazz, musicians like Ella Fitzgerald, John Coltrane, Miles Davis.  From there, you can start to develop your own voice, customizing the music to fit your own unique style.  I had never thought of learning jazz in this way, and it was such a great perspective.  Concerning improvisation, he quoted trumpeter Clark Terry’s theory: imitate, assimilate, innovate.  Basically the same point as comparing jazz to languages, one must imitate the musicians we strive to become like, then continually practice and master the art.  Only after mastering the essentials and gaining a deep understanding of how the chords and structures work can one start to branch out and create a unique voice.  Perhaps Terry’s theory stretches beyond jazz improvisation.  During the lecture today, Mr.Bahanovich told some stories of seemingly ordinary and average musicians who achieved great success by coming up with unusual yet simple ways to market themselves.  Of course we strive to imitate them in order to build an audience and gain fans.  After building that fan base, we can then begin to “innovate,” establishing an individualized voice and music completely unique from anyone else’s.  We must create a one-of-a-kind experience for our listeners, whether that be a visually-engaging production or music that forms a unique and personal connection to our audience.  The music industry has seen massive changes in the last two decades, but hope is not lost for aspiring musicians.  We must continue to master our craft and earn the respect and devotion of listeners.  From there, the possibilities are endless.

Our Responsibility as Musicians

I was speaking with one of my classmates today about the general lack of support music students give to their fellow musicians.  I found it interesting that he brought up this subject because it’s a concern I’ve often thought about since high school.  The poor attendance at some concerts and musical events in high school could simply be accounted for by the characteristic laziness of teenagers in their high school years.  But as I went through college, I found it more and more upsetting that music students were not showing up to support their fellow musicians’ performances.  Of course, we all have busy schedules and loads of homework (including hours of practicing), but I found it hard to believe that my fellow musicians couldn’t spare an hour every few weeks to come out to the choir, band, large ensemble, chamber music, big band, jazz combo, or any other performances.  I’ll admit that sometimes people had a legitimate excuse, such as work or a night class, but for the most part people seemed to be just plain lazy.  A common excuse seemed to be, “It’s been a long day, and I’m tired.”  Believe me, I understand long days; last semester I was taking seven classes, performing in two choirs, and working 12 hours a week when I could fit shifts in.  Maybe it’s just me, but I find tiredness to be a poor excuse for not attending concerts.  It’s not physically taxing to sit and listen to music, as far as I’ve experienced.  In fact, as musicians I would think it would be an enjoyable end to a long day, to just be able to sit and appreciate good music.  What’s more, most of our student ensemble concerts at school are free, so it does no harm to your wallet to attend.  Perhaps it’s the mindset of our generation to be more self-absorbed.  We’re constantly posting on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, Snapchat, and other social media outlets, often about the most trivial aspects of our daily lives, such as what we’re eating for breakfast/lunch/dinner (I’m guilty, too).  Sometimes it seems as if we all want to be celebrities, as if society waits anxiously to see what we eat, wear, and think every day.  Perhaps it’s this egocentric aspect of social media that’s caused our generation to be less concerned about supporting our colleagues.  But it’s becoming more and more clear that in order for the performance industry to stay afloat, we need to have many more people actively engaged in supporting performers.  And that starts with each other; if musicians don’t support each other, who will support us?  We need to rethink our priorities.  Everywhere you look, there are performers literally begging for people to attend their shows.  We spend so much time trying to build our own audiences that we often forget to contribute to the audiences of our colleagues.  The littlest effort can contribute to a musician’s audience.  The next time you see a friend or acquaintance post an original song or a video of a live performance on Facebook, give it a like or a share.  If your classmates are staging a small opera or putting together a small chamber recital, show up and support them.  We as musicians have an enormous audience within our own crowd, if only we decide to support each other.  With that, I leave you with a quote from James Taylor:

“I believe musicians have a duty, a responsibility to reach out, to share your love or pain with others.”

In my opinion, we not only have a duty to share our “love or pain” through our own music, but also to share the art created by our fellow performers.  Think about it.