Music and Memories

“Taxman” always makes me think of this. (Photo courtesy of Zachary Willis)

I’ve read over and over again that olfaction is the strongest sense at evoking memories. I think it has to do with the amygdala or something — hey, I’m not a neuroscience major. There are certain smells that bring up memories for me, some specific and some general; the smell of pine and sugar cookies makes me think of Christmas; the smell of “Midnight Pomegranate” hand soap, weirdly enough, makes me think of playing Call of Duty 4 back in 8th grade. Growing up in the plains of Northern Indiana, I always looked forward to the first day of summer — not June 21, but rather some Saturday in late April or May when I’d wake up, open the window, and smell the first faint, sweet, loamy scent of soil carried across the fields on the constant breeze. Every once in a while I’ll catch a brief whiff of it in Nashville and it still makes me excited.

Despite all this, one sense evokes more memories than scent for me: hearing. Specifically, hearing music; nothing else so vividly conjures up the events of my life as it does.
It’s truly amazing how specifically my brain has tied memories to songs, albums, and artists — most of the memories recalled by scent are foggy and general; yet, I remember that I put the song “Lazy Eye” by Silversun Pickups on a mix-CD I made for Christmas vacation in 2009. And I remember exactly where we were when the song played: driving around the Abe Martin Lodge in Brown County State Park. We drove behind the lodge counter-clockwise. There was a dumpster on the right, partially hidden by a fence. It’s nuts that I remember all that, but that’s what music does: act as a gateway to remember all of the little details that add up to make a life.

Every time I listen to Fleet Foxes’ debut album, I think of a trip I took to Indianapolis in the summer of 2011 with Molly and Sara. Molly bought the CD at Indy CD & Vinyl, and we listened to it while driving around the city; it was the first time I ever heard it. Now when I hear “Ragged Wood”, I think of summer, of friends, and of the hot July air. I now own the vinyl LP and it has become summer incarnate. These memories span years and genres; I remember working through Led Zeppelin’s discography while playing Roller Coaster Tycoon; every time I hear Green Day, I think of how I obsessively listened to American Idiot while writing a fifth-grade project on Henry Ford; I remember being blown away by “Neighborhood #2 (Laika)” while my dad installed new blinds; and any time I listen to Tarkio’s Omnibus I think of how I binged on that album one summer while replaying Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic.

It’s actually staggering to me how much I remember, but that’s the power of music; it engenders connections both positive and negative, and every time you hear a song, you bring with you all the previous baggage that the song has accrued.The National brings back how I felt as a heartbroken high-schooler; Pink Floyd, how good it felt to first discover music; The Decemberists make me think of spring, Fleet Foxes of summer, Grizzly Bear of fall, and Modest Mouse of Winter. “Te Amo” makes me think happily of last fall, when I was just getting to know my girlfriend. And this phenomenon isn’t limited just pop, indie, and rock; Jeremy Soule’s breathtaking soundtrack to Skyrim makes me think of “bro-nights” with Zach and of the 180 hours I spent exploring Tamriel’s northernmost province, and hearing Zelda’s Lullaby can still make me cry — I say “still” because Ocarina of Time was the first piece of art to make me cry, and at the tender age of 9, no less.

And thank God that music has left these marks on me. They’ve provided a means by which I can remember and reflect on the events of my life. They help me tie emotions and memories to people and places. Even as I’m listening to “Zelda’s Lullaby” right now, I think of all the family and friends I have that love and support me. And, yes, I think of me tearing up like a total wuss while sitting on my floor. I’m sure 9-year-old-me was embarrassed, but 20-year-old-me doesn’t mind. I didn’t realize it then, but I felt it; “it” being the truth that memory, more than anything else, is the fundamental power of music. Without memory, music is essentially just a series of pleasing sounds. The past would be a fog if music didn’t have this power; instead, I have a rich catalog of emotions, people, and places all neatly filed away by song, album, and artist, accessible through the simple act of closing my eyes and turning on the stereo.

Do you know why I cried at the ending of Ocarina? Because, in the end, the main character has to be sent back in time before the events of the game. The memories and experiences are wiped away. I cried because the memory was gone, and that memory has since gone on to be indelible to me. Looking back, I can appreciate the beautiful irony.