ruthless compassion (aroraborealis) wrote,
ruthless compassion

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musically triggered memories

For the first time in ages, I heard "The Sign" by Ace of Base this morning while taking the car back to the rental office. Now, this isn't a big tragedy; it's not like "The Sign" is a piece of musical genius or anything. In fact, it's really more like the Twinkie of music: empty calories, you sort of enjoy it while it's there, but there's not much left except for a crinky wrapper or an earworm when you're done. I will admit, however, to enjoying the occasional musically empty calories. I'm not proud of it, but pop music often appeals to my base musical interest, though I also can enjoy foie gras in addition to the twinkie.

Anyway, that's not the point of this post. The point of this post is to talk about "The Sign" and memories. Or, more broadly, music and memories.

I think the sense that, for me, triggers the strongest insta-memories is scent. For example, the smell of ladybugs will always make my skin crawl, and the smell of turkey will always make me feel cozy and warm. These are all-over, full-body memories, not just snapshots. And I know studies have been done on the links between scent and memory, and it's all very cool.

The next trigger, for me, is sound, in particular, music. I imagine I'm like many people in that I go through phases of listening to this, that or the other. I have favorites that run through many years, where I listen to them in varied situations and settings over a long period of time, and these tend not to be tightly linked to a particular nostalgia or memory or mood. I have others, though, that I listen to intensely for some period of time and then not at all for some longish time after that, so that when I come back to it, I'm snapped immediately back into the pathos of that time of my life.

For example, when I was in high school, my best friend was diagnosed with leukemia, and there was a very difficult month of uncertainty about whether she would live, how she'd be treated, etc. During this month, I listened almost exclusively to Peter Gabriel's Shaking the Tree. I listened to it most of every day, and on the five hour drive to the hospital to visit her, the days of driving around Salt Lake City between visits, and then the five hour drive home after being there for a few days. Then I moved on to other music and didn't hear, say, "Red Rain" again until years later, and when I did, I was literally overwhelmed by the physical sensation of being back in the hospital, the gut-wrenching uncertainty of those days. It completely knocked me flat for the entire length of the song.

Because I like that album, I started listening to it more consciously so as to drain some of the impact out of that association, and now, those songs hold a lot of nostalgia for me, but it's not so completely overwhelming. And in that experience, I realized other music that does similar things to me, and I've since made an effort to spread out my listening of music that I particularly like so that it won't be colored quite so strongly with one single experience.

This is more difficult to do when it's music that I mostly hear on the radio. Obviously, musical trends come and go, and if you listen to the radio, you can track them a bit, and that will make up something of a soundtrack for your life that will naturally evolve as one song goes out of fashion and the next comes in.

This is where "The Sign" is for me. I never bought the album, so it was just popular on the radio and amongst my friends my last year of high school. So when I heard it this morning, I was transported back to a soccer game on the back field of my high school, the feeling of excitement at seeing the guy I had a crush on, anticipating whatever the fun plans of that night were. It was a strong feeling, but, unlike the Peter Gabriel one, it was mostly good. The sensation was excitement and anticipation, colored by the angst that naturally comes in as part of adolesence. So I was able to appreciate the goodness of it while also appreciating how glad I am not to be at that point in my life anymore.

Nostalgia is a fascinating thing, isn't it?
Tags: music, thinky

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