I slip into bed after donning my extra-large Yankees t-shirt and rubbing an extra-large scoop of vaseline all over my lips. I pull the covers over my body, prop my back up against two pillows, and place my computer on my lap. My screen lights up to 20 open Safari tabs — some of the filled shopping carts with items that I will never purchase, and some with articles that I will never read. Still, I refuse to close the tabs (is there a word for that? Perhaps ‘tab hoarder’ works). It is late, and I am getting lonely, so I peruse the web for companionship. Twitter, Facebook, Instagram. Eventually the same photographs, jokes, and routines make me feel more lonely than I was when I began the evening.
So, I open Spotify.
I check to see what other people are listening to. I imagine my friend Skylar hunched over her computer, coding her next program as she listens to “Doo Wop (That Thing)” by Ms. Lauryn Hill. I picture Finn, a creative mastermind, sitting and doodling in colorful pens with his twin brother as they listen to “Landslide” by Fleetwood Mac. I miss Chloe, as I envision her pacing the room as she sings a cover of “Popular” from the Wicked soundtrack. I shuffle my playlist called “the rubber band.” I often picture my emotions as a rubber band. When I am angry it is taut and ready to break. When I am calm it is limp. “Crocodile Rock” by Elton John comes on.
“I remember when rock was young, me and Suzy had so much fun. Holding hands and skimming stones.”
Suddenly I am not 20 and in bed, but 15 and in the car with my dad.
The sun was beginning to set as we sped down the FDR drive towards Manhattan. I had just finished a two-week summer program at Yale. Though I had set out to learn about politics, law, and economics, I ended up spending a large portion of my time with an Australian boy named Toby, who I had quickly become smitten with. As my dad drove, I cried quietly in the passenger seat, lamenting my separation from my international lover. I feared that if he heard me, he would ask why I was so sad. Perhaps he would think I was newly enlightened as to how dysfunctional American politics are, and I would have to explain to him that I liked a boy.
Music reverberated throughout the car, mostly songs by Carlos Santana and Cream, and eventually “Crocodile Rock” began to play.
“But the biggest kick I ever got, was doing a thing called the Crocodile Rock.”
I began to cry harder. My emotions became a blend of what felt like heartbreak and nostalgia. A strangely familiar guttural warmth overcame my body. I closed my eyes and suddenly I was not 15 and in the car, but nine years old in my cabin at sleep away camp.
My days at camp started at eight a.m. when my counselors would shake me awake and we would all walk like zombies up to the flagpole. After reciting the pledge of allegiance, the hours moved quickly. I was busy at all times — eating, arts and crafts, canoeing, eating, swimming, eating, being forced to write letters home, eating, playing dress-up, and finally getting one last snack in before bed. When the day was over and it was time to turn our flashlights off, I was occupied by nothing but my nine-year-old thoughts. It was all fun and games until the lights went out.
I lied on my bed, staring at the bunk above me, and began to remember that I was alone. My family was probably watching a movie together at home without me. Suddenly, I desperately wanted to be on the couch between my parents. I began to cry. I was lonely and homesick.
So, I took out my iPod.
I rubbed my finger around the trackpad until I landed on “Crocodile Rock.” I pressed play and began to weep harder.
“While the other kids were rocking ‘round the clock, we were hopping and bopping to the Crocodile Rock.”
A painful lump formed in my throat and my stomach churned. The more I listened the more I cried. Simultaneously, the more I listened, the more I was comforted. Suddenly, I was not nine and at camp, but seven and at home in the comfort of my mother’s arms.
Music does not only remind you, it transports you. It is the soundtrack of life. It brings out memories and emotions with shocking clarity. In fact, I have found myself avoiding certain songs when I feel particularly vulnerable to an emotion. In quarantine I don’t dare listen to songs like “Go to Town” by Doja Cat or “Crank That (Soulja Boy)” out of fear that I will desperately crave a crowded room with flashing lights and blasting music, leaving me nostalgic. When I miss someone terribly, I know not to play “In My Life” by the Beatles, unless I am alone and due for a good cry.
Why is it that music generates memories so vividly and evokes emotion with such power? When I hear songs that take me back in time, there seems to be something deeper than just recollection at play. How is it that brain chemistry and neurological circuits act as a time machine?
I would like to shout out Nick Ellis, my Cognitive Psychology professor, for providing me with the large portion of the knowledge I am about to discuss.
Mnemonic devices are learning techniques that help in the retrieval and retention of information. They make use of certain brain functionalities such as elaborative encoding, retrieval cues and imagery to take in and store things easily and most efficiently. If one were to meet a person named Crystal and wanted to remember her name, they could picture a crystal ball hovering over her head. This pictorial representation of her name with preexisting knowledge about crystal balls makes the new information more available and therefore easier to remember in the future. This is one of many examples of a mnemonic device.
Music has been a mnemonic device for centuries. Epic poems such as Homer’s The Iliad and Odyssey were passed down via chant and song. Music was the most reliable way to memorize traditions and carry them on to future generations. I’m sure most people would agree that they have an easier time recalling the lyrics to their favorite song than they do recite the quadratic formula — unless they employed the same solution I did: sing the equation to the tune of “Pop Goes the Weasel.”
There is a remarkable amount of neurological overlap in brain regions that store, process and recall music with those associated with memory. This highlights the potential that music has to heal those with brain conditions as well as treat patients with depression. In his book Musciophilia, which discusses psychological ailments and their connections to music, Neurologist Oliver Sacks explains the impact of personalized music on people suffering from Alzheimer’s and severe memory loss. Personally meaningful music has a high potential to access long term memory in patients with memory loss because it deals with certain parts of the brain that are spared by the disease. FMRI scans show that the hub activated by music is located in the medial prefrontal cortex, which is one of the last areas of the brain to deteriorate over the course of Alzheimer’s.
Author and Psychology Professor Peter Janata created a model for mapping the tone of a song as it switches from chord to chord and from key to key. When comparing the tonal maps to the brain scans of those listening, he noticed that the brain was tracking tonal progressions in the same region that was experiencing memories (the dorsal part of the prefrontal cortex and those around it). The stronger the memory a participant has, the greater the tracking activity of tone.
In a study titled, “The Neural Architecture of Music-Evoked Autobiographical Memories,” Janata wrote, “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.”
The point is, music serves as a mnemonic device to access memories. When it does so, there is a great amount of neurological overlap between regions forming long term memories, and those processing music. This makes for a sensational and deeply meaningful musical experience.
I have only scratched the surface here in regards to the relationship between music and memory. It is clear, however, that there are deep neurological ties that have heavy implications for people in their everyday lives.
In my lonely hours during COVID-19, not only do I spend more time letting my mind wander as I listen to songs of my past, but I also wonder what songs will trigger my memory of quarantine. Perhaps the Pusha-T remix of the Succession theme song will remind me of my runs on foggy days through Central Park. Or maybe I will listen to “Real Love Baby” by Father John Misty and recall my afternoons by the largest window in my apartment, or the stomachache I had from one too many pieces of chicken and five too many scoops of ice cream. Or maybe, I will play “Crocodile Rock” and remember sitting on the living room floor, writing this.