On Second Thought.
While most around me were listening to “Valerie” by Steve Winwood or U2’s “Desire,” I was wearing out a cassette of Ella and Louis into the ground on my Sony Walkman.
There’s a strong link between smell and memory, as anyone who has ever been transported back to their childhood by the scent of Playdough can attest. But I think music plays almost as important a role in our brain’s mysterious filing system.
Take Ella and Louis, the album of jazz standards that Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong recorded with the Oscar Peterson Quartet in 1956. I discovered it, as many aspiring sophisticates do, in my early 20s. While most around me were listening to “Valerie” by Steve Winwood or U2’s “Desire,” I was wearing out a cassette of Ella and Louis into the ground on my Sony Walkman. (Yes, I’m that old.)
In 1988, I spent three weeks in Germany working with a team of international volunteers at a peace resource centre. ( Yes, I was that idealistic.) In between sporadic spurts of painting and yard work, we had the chance to travel the country. I found myself strolling around a lake in Hanover with my trusty Walkman, as Ella and Louis crooned “Cheek to Cheek” in my ears. To this day, hearing that music brings back everything about that summer day, from the ducks on the pond to the laughter of children in the distance.
On the same visit, my group of volunteers and I took a road trip to the border between West and East Germany. As we ate a picnic by the side of a road that had been sliced in two by a high chain-link fence, an East German military patrol stopped on the other side and stared at us. What else could a bunch of young peaceniks do but pull out a guitar and start bellowing “Give Peace a Chance” at the tops of our lungs? Even now, whenever I hear the John Lennon classic, I remember that I was among the last people—thankfully—to see a divided Germany before the Berlin Wall fell.
That trip stoked a lifelong obsession with travel that had started with my globetrotting family, who took me to Ireland when I was four. Over the years, the mental associations between music and places have continued to accumulate in my sponge-like brain.
Sometimes the music is simple: during a trip to Paris in 2004, my husband and I listened constantly to a local jazz radio station. The channel’s three-note mini theme song still calls up images of our apartment in Montparnasse whenever I hear it, as I do frequently, thanks to the wonder of Internet radio.
In other cases, the associations are more general. Any tango tune brings Buenos Aires to mind, and I can practically taste potent Caribbean rum punch whenever I hear soca music.
And the best part? Again, thanks to the Internet, it’s easier than ever before to find a copy of any song I might have heard, just about anywhere. When I’m compiling slide shows of my vacation pictures, finding the perfect soundtrack is a snap—even if I’m the only one who knows why Ella and Louis will always remind me of Germany.