Cather­ine Love­day

Lec­turer, West­min­ster Univer­sity

BBC Music Magazine - - CONTENTS - says Dr Cather­ine Love­day IL­LUS­TRA­TION CHRIS WADDEN/DE­BUT ART

‘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.

sight and sounds: ac­tor Peter Sal­lis (left) as­so­ci­ated The Lark As­cend­ing with meet­ing its com­poser Vaughan Wil­liams

pieces of eight: Roy Plom­ley on Desert Is­land Discs

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