The music we listen to often provides signposts for the events of our lives. A song or other piece of music can be a sensory trigger catapulting us back to moments we think we’ve forgotten.
Marcel Proust believed, and demonstrated in his monumental novel, La Recherche du Temps Perdu (Remembrance of Things Past) that olfactory stimuli (primarily taste and smell) were indelible sources of recollection. The mere taste of a madeleine (type of French lemon cookie) dipped into a cup of hot mint tea resurrected with great intensity a moment from his childhood thirty years before. Our sensory experiences are often stronger than our intellectual ones in terms of their ability to remain dormant but powerful.
The same sensory principle applies, I think, to audio stimuli, particularly ones involving music and human voices. I have a cassette tape my sister Connie Lynn and I made in 1978 of our grandparents. The recording is ninety minutes of conversation with Grandma and Grandpa along with their verbally animated stories of times gone by. Whenever I play it, those voices from all those years ago transport me back to my childhood and youth, despite the deaths of both grandparents before 1995 and the death of my sister in 2011. The timbre of those voices in some chilling, powerful, but unexplainable way, makes me young again just for a moment.
The song, “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” takes me back to the fourth grade in the rickety, old portable buildings of Harding School in the early 1950’s. Even just the tune to “Happy Birthday” summons scenes of my family gathered ‘round cakes with candles to be blown out while making wishes. “Silent Night” and other carols take me back to the Christmas seasons throughout my life and those cold winter nights when the songs had such profound meaning. The Beatles, Peter, Paul, and Mary, Blood, Sweat, and Tears, The Doobie Brothers, Tony Bennett, The Supremes, Judy Collins, and The Temptations carry me back, as if in a time machine, to the dorms of my college days. Whenever I hear “The Adagio for Strings” by Samuel Barber, I experience again with perfect clarity the aftermath and television news coverage of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination in November of 1963.
The ear recalls so much joy and sadness through music we’ve loved and the voices of those people who influenced us most, especially those from childhood. It’s possible for most of us to unearth strong memories tied to associations between music and vivid times in our lives that the music represents. Each of us can create his or her own list of music and voices from the past through sensory and emotional association.