Music and Memory

“No cookie nibbled by a French novelist
could send one into the past more suddenly—”

– from “The Lanyard” by Billy Collins

The other day I was working on my laptop while a popular singing competition played in the background when I heard the first few plaintive piano notes of the song “Walking in Memphis”  and I suddenly started seeing a memory play in the movie theater of my mind of a time I was stranded with a bunch of my friends in a Myrtle Beach hotel twenty years ago, January of 1995.  We had gone to Myrtle Beach for a business conference, and the morning we were set to leave, we got the news that I-95 was shut down through most of northern Virginia by a massive snowstorm.  There was nothing to do but stay a few more days and wait it out.  There was an entire floor of the beachfront hotel, the “Captain’s Quarters,” that was given over to entertainment: a bowling alley, a pool table, several arcade games, and a jukebox.  I remember playing that song on the jukebox several times while we were there.  I know I have not thought of this in at least a decade, but now here it is, just as if it happened yesterday.  It’s strange how we can be pulled so immediately into the past by music.

Actually, the more I think about it, it is not strange at all.  Music and memory are powerfully related. I used to give my creative writing students an assignment that starts with the line “The first time I heard [insert song title here], I was…”  They were always great stories because the memories were so clear – students could recount things with startling detail and emotion.

I associate certain days with certain songs.  I remember being in the living room of our house in Soddy Daisy, Tennessee on a pile of blankets with my brother and sister and hearing the spooky song “In the Air Tonight” on the radio.  I was eight, and it was the night my father died.  There are so many things about that day that have faded from memory, but not this thing. Even now, when I hear the song, it’s as if I slide down a rabbit hole right into the middle of that room.

I also remember in the months after my father’s death lying on the floor of our new house back in my mom’s hometown of Athens, Tennessee and playing the song “Don’t Stop Believing” by Journey over and over again.  I would crawl out of my bed journeyat night when I was sad or scared and could not sleep and go huddle right in front of my mom’s living room stereo.  The first night I did it, I just pushed play on the tape deck and the sound came out at me like a warm blanket, wrapped me up, and hushed me to sleep.  After that first night, whenever I found myself too traumatized to sleep, I crawled to the stereo in search of that peaceful lullaby. Play.  Rewind. Play. Rewind. Until sleep came over me. Years later, when I was in high school, I had a friend who was learning to play it, and I could not get enough of listening to her play those first few measures. Even today the song elicits a physical reaction – a deep breath and warm tingle that runs up the spine.

Music has been shown to help elderly people with memory recall.  This is important to on a personal level because my grandmother suffered from alzheimer’s and dementia, a disease with a genetic predisposition.  Perhaps I will face that too someday, but even if I am lucky enough to avoid it, I know that it is a fact of getting older that our memories become less distinct over time, and there are some things that I definitely want to remember, good and bad.  I want to remember working on a paper once about Virginia Woolf sitting in McKeldin Library at the University of Maryland with my little portable CD player and finding that for some reason, I felt most inspired when listening to “Sylvia Plath” by Ryan Adams.  I want to remember my sister, when we lived on Andrews Air Force Base, sitting in the backyard with her junior high friends dangling their painted toes in a baby pool while George Michael’s “I Want Your Sex” blared through the speakers of her pink boom box as they sang along in the worst possible tableau you could imagine for preteen girls.

I have so many memories of my brother that are connected to music, such as the songs by Quiet Riot and Twisted Sister that he used to play in his room, the Tesla tape that he used to play every morning as we drove to high school in our red Nissan Sentra (we were beyond cool), and the black Metallica t-shirt he was buried in.  It was his favorite. But there are two that are the most powerful.  One is from when we were kids living in Florida.  He was probably around thirteen years old, and I walked into his room unannounced – something you should never, ever do to a teenaged boy by the way – and he was jumping around on his bed wearing shorts and these white tube socks singing, “I’ve seen fire and I’ve seen rain…” by James Taylor.  It was funny then, and he was kind of embarrassed, but now it feels different.  Those white socks, for some reason, get me every time.  The way they were flopping off the ends of his feet, too big for him.  It kind of breaks my heart.

But the one that really breaks my heart is from the day after he died.  I just had to get out of the house for a little while, get away from all of the sadness, but that really wasn’t possible to do.  So I drove to the restaurant where he used to work and I just sat there in my car.  This song “One” by U2 came on.  Then the tears really came.

When I am old I still want to remember the things that have broken my heart along with the moments that have filled it.  I want to always remember “Lovely Tonight” by Joshua Radin but as performed by my friend Will at my wedding.  We stood at the top of the stairs and I gave my soon-to-be wife’s hand a squeeze before I walked down the aisle with this song drawing us to the altar, drawing us into happily ever after in front of all of our family and friends.

We are so lucky to live in this time where our life’s playlist is so easy to access, catalogue, and replay.  Our music tells our history in a way that words cannot quite reach, and for that I am grateful.  Sweet as any madeleine shortbread, these songs comfort and fortify me and summon up the remembrance of things past. As long as I can hear these songs, I am always in touch with who I am, who I’ve been, and who I want to be.

© 2015 Ryna May

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Ryna May

Ryna May is a teacher, writer, avid sports fan, and amateur philosopher. She lives in Maryland with her wife and two awesome dogs.

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