It happened when I was sitting in a café on South University Avenue. Four days before my EECS 281 midterm, three friends at the table, two slices of grilled cheese and one turmeric latte that painfully reminded me of home and my mother. That’s when, as I began working on this piece, the music system at the café played a familiar tune. The sound of the xylophone, followed by the subtle strumming of the guitar and finally a flourish of the drums took over my senses and filled the air around me. I braced myself as the first words of the song approached and I pulled out the memory of Zach Sobiech from the depths of my brain.
Stories are what fuel me. Real stories about real people. I don’t just enjoy them; I actively seek them out because they are what make most experiences worthwhile for me. “Clouds” by Zach Sobiech is one such song, a song incomplete without its story. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a perfectly fine song on its own, but my connection to it goes all the way back to my seventh grade English teacher, Ms. Radha — the person who told me about Zach Sobiech’s story. I often find myself relating songs to people I’ve known. Sometimes it’s expected and sometimes it comes out of nowhere, like today. I hadn’t thought about Ms. Radha for years, and as I approached two months in Ann Arbor, it felt good reminiscing about home. And when I reminisce, I usually do it to music.
The impact music has on our emotions and actions is very well documented and many researchers cite its positive effects. Music therapy is a common practice, not only to deal with excess stress, depression and other mental health issues, but even disorders relating to memory loss. Few would argue against music’s ability to influence our thoughts and actions. I, for one, have never underestimated its ability to perfectly match my mental energy in any situation. Sometimes it’s before a soccer game to pump me up, and sometimes it’s after a long day of work and being around people when I just want a moment to myself. I always considered these personal moments as crucial, but only recently, as I moved away from the place I grew up and the people I grew up with, did I realize that they weren’t personal moments at all. What I remember most about them is the people that were around me at the time. It’s not rocket science, I know. You listen to a song with a cousin all night during your family trip and it becomes your ringtone, or a classmate introduces you to a song and it becomes both of your newest obsession, or you go to a concert with a friend and that one moment when everyone’s got their flashlights on remains etched in your memory forever. It happens all the time and it is a very special feeling. But at this point, if you’re wondering, “What’s the big deal?” I wouldn’t blame you. I’m not claiming that I’ve made an extraordinary discovery — strong memories associated with a song and the people you heard it with is a common phenomenon, but when “Clouds” played on the speaker in that café, it felt different. It wasn’t just me recalling an old memory, it felt more significant than that. So let’s get into it.
Songs and people can each make us feel something and, sometimes, those two lines can intersect. Songs are relatable and sentimental, and sometimes they’re pretty good at being memorable — not unlike people. I’ve always been a big advocate of the idea that I am a product of the experiences I have shared with countless people across the world, and, regardless of whether I see them every day or have only met them once, my story is made up of the tiny bits that each and every one of them left behind. How amazing would it be if those tiny bits, the things people made us feel, aren’t moments that only exist in the past, but are moments that can be relived? I am here to tell you that it’s possible. All you need is the right song. “Clouds’” is one such song. I always thought I connected it to Ms. Radha simply because she told me about it, but maybe it’s more than that. “Clouds” is a song about finding light in dark times. It’s a song about hope. Tomorrow might not go as we planned or expected, but what everybody needs is hope and there will always be somebody who can give us that. Ms. Radha gave me the hope that I could be a better person at a time when I needed it. There is not a sliver of doubt in my head that I would not be who I am today without her and although she only taught me for one year, she made me a stronger person. It made me feel more powerful and more confident. It’s not just the lyrics that make me feel empowered. It’s Zach Sobiech’s story, Ms. Radha and the memory of this song that lives on, reinforced twofold every time I hear it, especially when it plays out of the blue in the basement of a café.
What I realized while sitting in that café is that music isn’t about glorifying the past, it’s about recreating an emotion you once felt and bringing it back to the present so that you can feel it again. As much as science might have you believe otherwise, the past can be revisited, and music is as good a time machine as any. Yes, very often we relate songs to people because we share a memory with them, but reliving the emotions that memory evokes is what enables us to keep that memory alive. So, when a song reminds me of the time we kayaked in the freezing waters of North India or the time we stayed up all night in that one hotel in Beijing or the time we sang that very song while doing karaoke for the first time, I’ll savor those moments. We might never have heard it before or we might’ve played it on loop every day. The song might have no connection to us or it might be the song we sang together every day — it doesn’t matter. All I know is that it makes me feel like you’re around, and sometimes, in that very moment, that’s all I need.
You know when people sometimes say, “I wish I could experience something for the first time again?” You can. I’ve been doing it all my life. I just needed some grilled cheese and an old song to realize it.
Rushabh Shah is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.