BBC Music Magazine
Lecturer, Westminster University
‘As a musician and memory researcher, I have long been intrigued by the very powerful and intimate way that music attaches itself to significant people, places and periods across the course of our life.’
Many years ago, I heard a very touching story at the memorial service for my PHD supervisor, Professor Alan Parkin. Towards the end of her tribute, his wife recounted the moment that their baby had been born. Long before the due date, the couple had decided that they wanted Vaughan Williams’s The Lark Ascending to be playing during the birth, but in their rush to leave the house they’d left the CD behind. A kind nurse dashed around to find an alternative soundtrack but in the end, the doctor suggested they go with whatever BBC Radio 3 had to offer. Fate must have been smiling on them that afternoon because just as the baby emerged, the first gentle violin notes of The
Lark Ascending drifted over the airways. Now, whenever I hear that piece, I can still feel the atmosphere that fell across the room as the eulogy concluded and the same melody began to play. The sounds that had once welcomed a new life were now marking goodbye to another. What struck me at the time was how perfectly it seemed to fit both occasions.
It is extraordinary how music attaches itself to our life story – easily, rapidly, and often unconsciously. The Lark Ascending is many things to me but this emotive link with my PHD supervisor inherently links it with my identity as a memory researcher. Just the opening notes are enough to trigger that moment in 2000, which in turn cues a flood of many other memories – my first meeting with him, the ease with which he explained a complex theory, the times when he offered
support, his repeated pleas for me to publish my research, and even his love of cricket. My ability to recall these times plays a part in who I am now and the decisions I make. We are all a product of our memories – they define our identity, they provide a social glue, and they enable us to plan the future. And music seems to offer a particularly effortless access to this narrative. Even when the memories don’t fully emerge into consciousness, a familiar piece of music can still evoke an underlying sense of past experiences.
Coincidentally, Parkin introduced me to a man called Clive Wearing, who had suffered a severe bout of encephalitis. This infection ruthlessly destroyed large parts of his brain and led to one of the most profound cases of amnesia ever recorded. Clive had been a professional musician working for the BBC, and despite losing all his lifetime memories, retained an astonishing ability to conduct, perform and play the piano. The robust way in which musical memories seem to survive is demonstrated time and time again in individuals with brain damage and dementia. Even those who have become entirely divorced from their former life – desperately lost and confused – can be dramatically reawakened when they hear the right music. Familiar melodies seem to provide a conduit to their past and a means to reconnect with friends and family. Recent research has shed light on why this might be, showing that musical memories are stored in a particularly ‘safe’ area of the brain and so remain generally accessible even after many other memories have faded.
As broadcaster Roy Plomley recognised back in 1941 when he dreamt up Desert Island Discs, music provides a superb gateway into our personal autobiographies. For those unfamiliar with the radio programme, guests select eight records to take with them to a desert island. As soon as people talk about a piece of music that is important to them, they begin to share stories of significant moments in their life – family holidays, first years away from home, weddings, funerals, personal triumphs, challenges, critical turning points. Over the years, The Lark Ascending has been chosen by 20 people, each with their own personal take on its place in their lives. The screenwriter Phil Redmond described how it always takes him back to great memories of messing around in the country during the long, hot summers, while actor Peter Sallis recounted meeting Vaughan Williams himself, outside the Sadler’s Wells Theatre. ‘I just stared at him,’ he said, ‘and thought, this oak tree has written the most beautiful piece of English symphonic writing.’
Our own research of the Desert Island
Discs archive has confirmed something that psychologists have recognised for a while – guests tend to gravitate towards music they
Musical memories are stored in a ‘safe’ area of the brain
first heard in their late childhood and teens. This established phenomenon is known as the ‘reminiscence bump’, and it also occurs when people are asked to choose their favourite films, books, and even footballers. Why might things we first discover during this period be preferred and better remembered? A popular theory suggests that memories from this time are important in defining our identity – who we are, what we like and where we come from. We naturally return to and rehearse these memories more than others because they support our sense of self. Favourite music can often be associated with a ‘self-defining memory’, such as a moment of personal discovery or an important transition. These memories tend to be particularly emotive and to have an enduring theme. A participant from one of our experiments, a professional singer, said of The Sound of Music, ‘I remember watching this at the age of eight and knowing that I just wanted to be Julie Andrews – I can still relate to those feelings now.’
While our music choices are of course based on the aesthetic and emotional pleasure they bring, our research suggests that preferences are partly driven by the autobiographical memories we attach to them. But why does music become so intimately entangled with our personal narrative? One clue may come from our finding that a large percentage of musical memories are bound up with our relationships. People often refer to songs that their mother, father or grandparent used to sing around the house when they were very young, or a cassette that was played on every family holiday, as well as hymns played at weddings and funerals. Sometimes it will be the performer themselves – soprano Josephine Barstow told Roy Plomley, ‘I love the trio from
Così fan tutte and I would like to hear Kiri Te Kanawa singing Fiordiligi, because in my view hers is the most beautiful soprano voice of our generation, and I would love to have it with me on the desert island. We were in fact students together at the Opera Centre.’
So maybe the capacity of music to connect us to people and even to aspects of ourselves explains why it is so powerfully linked with our memories. Melody, pitch, rhythm and timbre are fundamental to our communication of emotions – they signal joy, sadness, grief, surprise, excitement; they add crucial meaning to our words, and are the substance of universal pre-linguistic expressions such as laughter and crying. In one form or another it is music that enables us to connect, empathise, build friendships and regulate our own feelings. Fascinating work from Carol Krumhansl, a professor of psychology at New York’s Cornell University, has suggested that we may even have a ‘cascading reminiscence bump’ – not only do people prefer music they first experienced in their youth, but they are also inclined towards music that belongs to their parents’ and even grandparents’ teenage years. In other words, because our parents play their favourite music while we are growing up, this same music later becomes important to us because it connects us to them. I like to think that my son’s love of Rachmaninov stems from my Russian grandmother’s stories of sitting on the piano stool of the great man himself.
From an evolutionary point of view, relationships are essential to human survival. We need families to support us into adulthood, and it is through communities that we find food, build shelter and protect ourselves from danger. Attachment is critically dependent on being able to remember our previous interactions and how they have made us feel. For many of us, music offers one of the most powerful ways to cement and extend relationships, simply through its ability to stimulate recollections of past encounters. Our theories suggest that the intimate association between music and memories derives from the remarkable way that it connects us to people, both in the present and through association with the past. If you are going to be on your own on a desert island then how better to defeat the solitude than to take your friends and family in the form of a Rachmaninov piano concerto, a set of old folk songs, or The
White Album by The Beatles. Music regulates our emotions, it stimulates our mind, but it also connects us to people, the periods, and the moments that make us who we are.