5th grade science camp. Laying on the top bunk of a bed, fiddling with one of those yellow disposable cameras in a musty and cramped cabin. It smells like sweat and Axe Body Spray (to this day I don’t know which is worse). We are summoned to what was the equivalent of a mess hall for a mountain dinner; soup, bread, potatoes. It’s skit night. I grew up a very shy kid but my best friend and I were in the same group and our skit was about breaking out of normal life and becoming rock stars. We took the stage and our song began to play. Maybe it was being away from the confines of the school, maybe it was the thin mountain air. But that was the first time in my life I remember letting loose.
Now, every time I hear “Hold On” by Good Charlotte it sends me, at light speed, back to that moment in my life. Do I see the irony in 10 year old me not having the slightest grasp on lyrics from a snotty pop-punk band from 2002? Yes, but nonetheless, music bonded me to a moment in my life. Do I wish the song that signified one of my earliest memories of music was a little more… meaningful? Actually, no. That song will always hold a special place in the sub-woofers of my heart.
This is something I’ve been meaning to write about for a long time, but always sidestepped due to the sheer scope of the subject. It’s music, how do you explain something so influential and deeply ingrained into society? I enlisted the help of science, some old memories, and a few close, musically-inclined people in my own life. Let’s rock.
As if recalling a book from a shelf, a specific song often has the ability to open up a chapter in our life from long ago. The music is tethered to a feeling. Not just a feeling, but a feeling in time. It’s often hauntingly distinct.
Perhaps we have our ancestors to thank. Long ago, epic tales were passed down verbally, using various poetic devices. Sung or chanted stories established a bond between oral tradition and memory. These stories quite literally depended on memory in order to survive.
Our brains are an impossible network of neural information. We are constantly ingesting information- names, faces, sounds, voices, words, movements. Recalling information over the span of years is not always an easy thing to do. Within music, the presence of rhythm, rhyme, structure, alliteration, and melody all work together to give us more to mentally grasp onto. Who doesn’t remember how they learned their ABC’s?
In a study from 2013, two researchers from the University of Newcastle in Australia studied the relationship between music memory and patients who had suffered traumatic brain-injuries. The study, published in the journal Neuropsychological Rehabilitation, was the first of its kind to use patients with acquired brain injuries (ABIs) to study “music-evoked autobiographical memories” (MEAMs).
Snippets of popular songs were played for patients with ABI’s as well as a control group with no brain injuries. The songs spanned the participants’ entire life, starting from the age of 5. At the end of the study, all participants were tasked with recording their familiarity of a given song and what memories it evoked.
As it turns out, the highest count of MEAMs were reported by one of the ABI patients.
“In all those studied, the majority of MEAMs were of a person, people or a life period, and were typically positive.”
A 2009 study from UC Davis also revealed certain parts of the brain to be activated in the presence of familiar tunes. One area of the brain was affected more than others by familiar music, the medial prefrontal cortex. This also happens to be the last area of the brain to atrophy during Alzheimer’s Disease.
Green- familiar music, Red- Salient memories, Blue- Enjoyable music, Yellow- Both music familiarity and salient memory
Petr Janata, associate professor of psychology at UC Davis’ Center for Mind and Brain states,
“What seems to happen is that a piece of familiar music serves as a soundtrack for a mental movie that starts playing in our head. It calls back memories of a particular person or place, and you might all of a sudden see that person’s face in your mind’s eye.” … “Now we can see the association between those two things—the music and the memories.”
It’s safe to say that music effectively acts as a pseudo-time machine. While this is both scientifically fascinating and extremely sentimental, the therapeutic potential here should not be understated.
Piano lessons, violin in 4th grade, trumpet in middle school, learning drums from the game Rock Band, then forming an actual rock band in high school. I have leaned heavily on music to express myself and help shape my identity.
I was fortunate to grow up with older parents who were able to share their music with me from an early age. From Motown to The Beatles, I developed an appreciation for the sound of the past before I ever knew the sound of the present. As a quiet kid, I was always encouraged to express myself. Considering music was always playing in the house or in the car, certain songs would become friends of mine, so to speak. I would open up and feel comfortable singing along or drumming on the dashboard with two pens. To this day it just feels wrong when I’m in a car and music isn’t playing.
Even though it may not be a career for me, creating music remains something I always find myself doing- I should say, trying to do. I can only crawl my way across a piano and fumble with a guitar but it doesn’t stop me from taking a half hour here or there and experimenting. Sometimes I find a sound I like, most of the time it’s dissonant noise, but I love it each and every time.
There is nothing quite like creation. Writing, drawing, carpentry… daydreaming. It’s unrestricted freedom, free from judgment (in theory), and liberating to no end. As we get older, we become plagued with doubt. We’re no longer careless teenagers, swimming with absurd ideas. It’s easy to think of “better” things to do. Music takes patience, dedication, and a willingness to open the floodgates and use whatever comes out to create something that has never been created before.
I reached out to close friend, supreme bassist, and former band mate, Bryan (good name, must be a good guy) about his experience with creation and personal growth.
When we choose creation over consumption, we open up the path to deeper fulfillment. It’s not always a direct route, often filled with potholes and dead ends, but it’s the journey that counts. The hardest part is getting behind the wheel. I love picking up my guitar. When I get home from work, I’ll sit down and strum familiar chords to let off steam. Occasionally, I’ll reach for the bass and relive tunes from the garage band days. When I close my eyes, I can see us on stage again.
This feels amazing. Maybe I should start writing a new song.
There’s a rush of excitement, but also tangible fear. I start feeling scared and hear an old, familiar voice.
You’re not good enough. What’s the point? Plus, it’s been a long day. Just catch up on Westworld.
I give into that voice more often than I’d like to admit. Consuming is easier. It feels so good in the moment, but its long term effects can slowly eat away at us.
When I was in high school, I was surprisingly good at ignoring that voice. I wrote more songs, didn’t overthink the process, and carved out the details with my bandmates. Maybe it was the hormones, but hey, I just wanted to listen to my sixteen-year-old heart. As time went on, the voice got louder. And I started listening. I started hesitating when picking up an instrument, more afraid to experiment with new ideas. I froze when I opened an empty music file. All I had to do was hit “record.”
Growth comes from looking at a blank canvas and doing something. Anything. It’s working through the discomfort and listening to your creative voice instead. The one that encourages you to go deeper into the unknown. When I reflect on the work I’m most proud of, inspiration was never enough. Each project has a road filled with doubt and countless obstacles along the way. Avoiding cruise control is tough, but accelerating toward things we’re passionate about can be even harder. For me, creativity is about learning to be a better driver every day.
What Bryan said about dealing with the opposing “voice” and creating vs. consuming really stuck with me. Not trying at all is often easier than facing the prospect of failure. It’s far too easy to avoid failure through non-participation. Like anything, once we put pen to paper or hit “record” we are subject to an intense vulnerability.
I always have to remind myself, there will be no progress without failure. As a writer, something I constantly struggle with is embracing bad writing. I’ve found it’s a necessary evil, the abrasive shell before you get to the center of the coconut. Just get it out. Exercise it like a demon. Then go back and edit, polish, expand. You must embrace the inner mad scientist.
When we’re upset we often need people to listen to us. Not give advice, not even make us feel better, just listen. It’s interesting, when I find myself in times of trouble mother Mary- whoops.
When I’m feeling depressed, music forces me to listen. I let my guard down and become receptive to what the lyrics have to say, adapting them to my own experiences even though they may have been written in a completely different context. Chords and melodies evoke emotions I would’ve otherwise been resistant too. Even if it amplifies negative ones, in a weird way it really helps. It’s like getting into a freezing pool, sometimes it’s better to just jump in.
Conversely music can be a high, the emotional gasoline we need in a moment. Why do television shows have a theme song? Why does it pump us up at the gym? Why is it always the most fun part of a wedding? Why do wrestlers walk out to it? Music elicits a reaction. Whether its singing in the car or screaming at a concert, the right song can make us feel invincible.
I asked my girlfriend and gifted vocalist, Claudia, to share some of her thoughts regarding the relationship between music and our emotions:
I think of music as an extension of myself, a tool I use to communicate what I can’t come close to conveying with words or gestures. I’ve been singing since I was quite young and now, nearly ten years later, it is easier to see how music has shaped me into a more outgoing, passionate, emotional, academic and collected person. I believe I was born a more sensitive and emotional person than most but music has really drawn those characteristics out of me, calling them “artistic.” I believe all musicians regardless of their primary instrument shares this: we are all artistic and—usually—highly in tune with our and others’ feelings.
At times I am overwhelmed by the idea that my voice has powers. Because it does (everyone’s does!) It took me a very long time to accept that about myself. All that I have learned about singing with poise, expression and technique in private lessons really has equipped me to touch people’s lives in a special way, all across my daily life.
Within any given song, especially songs from decades past, there is a natural ebb and flow. It’s imperfect, it breathes. Volume, accents, harmonies, tempo, all work together like organs in a living creature. In this way I think music can be incredible poignant. A song can emulate a feeling so precisely, sometimes without any words at all. It is in this way that I believe music holds the most power.
Sweating in a 95 degree garage with three other dudes making our own music is among the most fun I’ve had in my life. I grew up pretty introverted, so expressing myself in front of others made me uncomfortable. It wasn’t until this group dynamic emerged in high school and through my early college years that I was able to really grow creatively. Of course, having tight-knit friends from the 8th grade as band mates definitely helped. There’s a rapport that is sort of unspoken. It’s ok to be stupid and throw anything out there. There are no right or wrong ideas- just… ideas. I think of it like having dancing partners. Everyone involved has to work together to deliver something cohesive and larger than the sum of its parts. It’s about unity.
Musical collaboration is an exercise in communicating complex ideas, an outlet for tension, and a way to access the flow. Nirvana, zen, clicking, grooving, whatever you want to call it. There is a moment when everyone in the room hits their stride at the same time and it’s palpable. Everyone looks around the room and grins. The best way I can experience flow is: Imagine having amazing sex while simultaneously learning how a really cool magic trick is done. You get the point. It’s immensely satisfying coupled with on-the-fly discovery… satiscovery?
At its core, music is about taking existing ideas and influences to shape something original. It’s all made from the same parts, but there are endless results. Sure we emulated the classic rock idols we looked up to as kids and later attempted to go “alternative” with what our idea of a “mature sound” was, but there will always be a part of our music that came from us and only us. To be able to perform something like that for someone, literally anyone who will watch, is indescribable. It could be to a disappointing crowd of 10 (trust me, it was!) or a jam-packed room. The fact that just one person is sticking around to hear what you made is incredible.
From the KISS ARMY to Beliebers, we continue to share the experience of music. How many friendships are forged over the love of the same band? How many couples have a “song”? How many songs go viral every year? Singing Christmas music, playing campfire songs, teaching your children “Old MacDonald”, singing in church, karaoke night at the bar. Whether four Brits from across the pond or four kids from the 95 degree garage across the street, music is a gift and one that I will forever be grateful for.