Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Music, Memory, and Mood

Music has an interesting ability.

On a rainy day, you wake up with a kink in your neck. You find out you did poorly on your Economics midterm and you realize you have to walk to the nearest store to pick up toothpaste (you just ran out). Inside the store, a familiar song comes on, one that you used to dance to many years ago. You smile, buy your toothpaste, and walk out of the store with a little kick in your step.

You're at the gym. You're a bit jealous of your buddy Nick who is always pumping out higher reps than you on the same weights. As he finishes his seventh rep on the bench, he grunts loudly and puts the weights back on the rack. You feel a twinge of jealousy as you've only been able to do six of these. As you sit down, an intense song comes on in the gym. You feel empowered, possessed but an unknown but welcomed strength. Thrusting the bar up, you manage to hit the seventh repetition, and with a loud grunt, you pump out an eighth

Music effects us. The general idea is that "happy" music makes you feel happy -- just as "sad" music makes you feel sad.

I think it's a little more complicated than that. The consequences of music on us as an individual are first and foremost determined by our memory of the song and then the mood.

Songs have an innate ability to leech onto memories. When I hear Joshua Radin's song "Winter" I can't help but think of a certain night...

I was watching scrubs. Anyone who's familiar with the show knows this episode. The stoic Dr. Cox ends up being a bit delusional and emotional at his best friend Ben's funeral. Winter plays during this scene. I was living with my parents at the time and I wanted them to hear the song too. They had just entered the house downstairs as I headed down the steps from my room on the second floor. I felt an uncomfortable, melancholic approach in their footsteps and mannerisms as they put their keys down and walked into the master bedroom. I followed suit, proclaiming I had a song I wanted to show my mom. She turned at me, with a face riddled with a myriad of emotions that one can only experience at certain monumental moments of ones life.

"Grandma passed away," she stated aloofly, perhaps trying to appear less affected by the recent events. Her detached, matter-of-fact proclamation of my grandmothers death is etched in my mind to this day.

And that's what happens when I hear the first two seconds of Winter. It still gives me chills as I listen to it now (this story happened roughly four years ago).

The effect of music on memory recall is profound. My previous point though, about memory vs. mood is simple: Some people might hear Winter and be happy. They may have heard the song with a significant other on a cold night by a fire (that's like a hyper-cliche, but you get the point).

So it's a logical process.
  1. Hear song.
  2. Remember instance of song (memory).
  3. Recall emotions related to instance.
  4. Experience emotions (mood).
What's interesting, is that the degree of emotional regression is pretty close, if not exactly the same as the original event. I know people who cry whenever they hear specific songs, regardless of how long ago the instance they are reminded of took place. This leads me to believe that the brains relation of music and memory is close-knit and cannot tell when they two are isolated from one-another.

To my mechanical brain, every time I hear Winter my grandma dies. My logical mind knows better though. To put in laments terms -- that's some deep shit.

That is just one powerful example of musical memory that I have experienced. I could provide a memory for most of the music I've ever heard. Here's another that stands out...

During last semester, I wasn't feeling to hot about the direction my life was going. I wasn't attending my college classes and I wasn't doing my homework. I was down, depressed, and stressed. I was amazingly bored with everything. I complained all the time to my parents that I wasn't doing anything constructive in school. I wanted to make music, I'd tell them, but then I'd be taking Micro Economics. It didn't make sense to me.

One night, behind the effervescent glow of my laptop, I stumbled upon a website. There's a program in San Francisco where they teach music production and I spent a good deal of time looking into it. I wasn't sure if this is where I wanted my life to go.

Skip ahead a few days. There's a radiantly beautiful sunset outside (not unlike the picture in the Jaded video) and my iPod shuffled to Jaded. The ambient, hopeful tune combined with the heavenly gradient outside my window provided a moment of clarity unlike any I had experienced previously. I laughed out loud to myself. That program is exactly what I needed. That moment I called my parents and told them I wanted to attend (which I am, hopefully, in September).

I'd be interested in hearing other peoples musical memories as well.

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