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Remember This, Newmarket: Music is a powerful force in unlocking memories that make up our history

In this week's column, Newmarket History Hound Richard MacLeod takes a look at how the songs from our past can stop us in our tracks, and return us to another time

Does the music from your past have the power to stop in your tracks, swept away in a myriad of nostalgic feelings? Well, it most certainly does for me. I can be just getting on with my life, be it a good day or bad, and a song that I love from my past is playing somewhere within earshot and bam, just like that I am singing and dancing away, swept away to that moment in time when I first heard the tune.

I wondered why that happens to me and so I decided to do a little research. This weekend’s article on Newmarket Today is the result of my research into music and why it touches us so. I suspect that this phenomenon may also touch many of you out there.

When I sat and considered how music affects my emotional experience, I discovered that music could evoke powerful emotional responses within me be it sadness or joy.

The literature I read about the topic spoke of the positive emotions that usually dominate our musical experiences but for me that is not always so. Quite often a song will spark feelings of remorse or sadness as it transports me back to a setting where that was the prevalent emotion of the time.

I think that we all can agree that listening to music is an effective way to alter one’s mood or to relieve stress. People use music in their everyday lives to regulate, enhance, and diminish undesirable emotional states (for example stress or fatigue). The question is, just how does listening to music produce emotions and pleasure in the listener?

A few weeks ago, I was working on one of my articles, and in the background, I hear Three Rows Over, Two Seats Down, a song by Bobby Curtola, playing on the radio. I immediately stopped what I was doing and closed my eyes: I am now back at the Newmarket Community skating rink in the '60s, trying to catch up to a young lady that I was particularly keen on at the time. I felt like I was back there, with all my resident emotions intact.

This is often the case; I hear just one refrain of a song and the joys and tribulations of my past come immediately to mind. Strangely, if I deliberately try and remember something particular from my past without the accompanying music, I experience nothing as immediate or as emotional. This is an experience often shared by everyone: hear a piece of music from decades ago and you are transported back to that exact moment in time, just like stepping into a time machine. You can feel everything as if you were there.

The relationship between music and memory is powerful, and I understand that new research is hoping to discover how these memories work for therapeutic effect. We know that it is already used to help dementia patients, the elderly, and those suffering from depression.

There is a link then between music and memory, but why, when we hear a particular song, do we feel such strong emotions rather than just reciting the lyrics?

Scientists tell us that there are different kinds of memory, including explicit and implicit memory. Explicit memory is a deliberate, conscious retrieval of the past, often posed by questions like: where was I that summer? Who was I travelling with? Implicit memory is more a reactive, unintentional form of memory, it is just there.

A large part of memory takes place in the unconscious mind. There are aspects of memory that are remembered implicitly, that is, outside of consciousness. Implicit memory systems involve different parts of the brain than explicit memory systems.

It is the explicit memory systems that are damaged by conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease. Implicit systems are robust in comparison. I know that I have found that things that can affect me from outside of my consciousness (where I find myself at that moment) are often powerful. In other words, implicit memory is emotional as well as being durable.

Notably, memories stimulated by music often come from a particular time in our lives. Classic hits take us back to our teenage years and our 20s, much more than songs of later years. Psychologists have called it the reminiscence bump. It may work this way because it was an especially important and exciting time in our lives when we are experiencing things for the first time and when we became independent.

Later, life becomes a bit of a blur. Music evokes emotion, but the sound and feeling of it, while it is important, doesn’t necessary seem to define your feelings. A sad song can be associated with a happy time in my life, or a happy one with a sad one.

The experts tell us that music has a profound physical effect on all of us. Music can create a strong tendency to move in coordination with the music (e.g., dancing or foot-tapping). Our internal rhythms (e.g., our heart rate) speed up or slow down to become one with the music. We float and move with the music.

It is not necessarily just my pop/rock music that evokes memories from this time in my life. Hearing a song that we listened to as a family, ‘my mom’s or dad’s music’ seems to work the same way. Why? Well, for a start this music was playing in the background, whether we selected it or not. There is always something on the radio, in bars, clubs and bedrooms that is contemporary and is almost accidentally attached to a particular time. This music is also of the moment

Listen to the popular music from the ‘50s, '60s or '70s, for example, and you remember what that time sounded like. For me, there is something more abstract about classical music, which has become more detached from its original time and may be harder to place.

Researchers make an important observation about the differences between smell and hearing regarding memories. Smell differs in that it is a personal memory, whereas there is something very social in our experience of music. Simply put, music memories are often shared with our peers. We tend to listen, together. We go to concerts or parties with one another.

And it is because music is there as the backdrop to the lives we share with others, often with significant others, that those sounds become especially meaningful to us. Indeed, this ‘music of our lives’ it is often played at or composed for significant occasions, like funerals, birthdays, parties, weddings or maybe that special date, where we are experiencing major life events. 

Medicine has discovered that for people who have suffered traumatic brain injuries, music can help bring back some of those special moments of their lives. Those with dementia can trigger vivid memories by listening to music they heard when they were young. Music therapy is also used for those with depression. Music cannot cure, but perhaps it can help heal.

The second question I pondered is why ‘the oldies’ inspire this profound flood of memories to resurface. I still listen to music of every genre, but it seems to be the music of my youth that really moves me. 

I find that when listening to older songs, the beat, the voice, and the entire song, in general, is less edited and as a result produces better music than most of the modernized genres out there today. I love the base; it seems to always move me. It’s almost impossible to not sing along to them, and they’re most enjoyable when they’re catchy. 

At basically every wedding I have attended, Sweet Caroline has been played, I think because people of all ages love it. Even if there’s a 60-year-old woman and a 10-year-old boy on the dance floor, they both know it and join in together because it’s just one of those oldies everyone knows. It’s a Wonderful World is another song of this ilk.

I learned very early in my career that music can be an excellent icebreaker in awkward situations. No matter how awkward the situation was, whether it be at a family reunion, wedding, in a business environment or even a get-together at someone’s house, music is a key to communication success. It is my experience that when you bring out the older music, you bring in the crowds. All those shy caterpillars like me turn into social butterflies in no time.

Sometimes, when I am reminiscing about my family and specifically my parents and grandparents, I love to listen to what my parents used to listen to. Somehow it brings them close once again.

Like everyone, I experience all the ups and downs of life. Music brings out the happiness and the urge to sing in me (much to the chagrin of those around me, ha-ha). I may be a terrible singer but I get emotional when I hear these personal oldies and I can’t really help myself, I feel the love and yes sadness that these songs bring forth.

One of the questions I always pose in the oral history interviews I conduct is what song makes you laugh, smile or cry, takes you back? Everyone has a song, everyone can tell you when they first heard it, who they were with and how they felt.

Next time your ‘personal oldie’ comes on, sit back, close your eyes and belt it out to the world. Bathe in the memories that it conjures up within you. This is, in my opinion, the best way to stay sane in what has become a very trying time. History is all about memories and music is a strong pathway to unlocking those memories.

Sources: Music, Emotion, and Well-Being: How does music affect the way we think, feel, and behave? by Abigail Fagan; Science Explains Why We Like Old Music Better Than Everything Else by Tom Barne; 11 Reasons Why Old Songs Will Always Be the New “Old” Hits by Nicole Priebe; Why does music evoke memories? By Tiffany Jenkins


Newmarket resident Richard MacLeod, the History Hound, has been a local historian for more than 40 years. He writes a weekly feature about our town's history in partnership with Newmarket Today, conducts heritage lectures and walking tours of local interest, and leads local oral history interviews.