The opening notes of a song play through my headphones, and my mind’s eye immediately conjures an image of a computer lab at Marshall University. I hadn’t thought of that lab or that song in years, but there it was. If I tried, I could smell the dust, and feel the breeze through the open classroom windows on a warm spring afternoon.
Music is a time machine. We’ve all joked about how our brains can remember the lyrics to a song heard decades ago, but not the answers to a test we’ve been studying for, or our own password to websites we visit often.
According to a 2013 article in The New York Times entitled “Older Brain Is Willing, but Too Full,” learning becomes more difficult as we age not because we have trouble absorbing new information, but because we fail to forget the old stuff.
While this may be true, it does not directly address why music evokes such powerful memories. An article from livescience.com entitled, “Brain’s Link Between Sounds, Smells and Memory Revealed,” may hold the answers.
“Sights, sounds and smells can all evoke emotionally charged memories,” the author of the article, Rachael Rettner writes. “A new study in rats suggests why: The same part of the brain that’s in charge of processing our senses is also responsible, at least in part, for storing emotional memories.”
Once I read this, a floodgate of realization hit me. Of course, music interacts with one of our strongest memory-holders, senses.
For example, when I smell cedar, I am immediately transported to my childhood babysitter’s backyard where a new cedar privacy fence had been installed while I stayed with her.
These memories conjured by smells are usually pretty comforting, in my experience. However, certain music can take me back to times I’d rather not remember.
I’ll pull back the curtain on the magic of publication for a moment and tell you the Holiday Edition of Prerogative Magazine is produced in or around October. In 2020, I found this particularly aggravating because, by the time Christmas actually rolled around, I’d already done most of my traditions, and written extensively about the holiday for the magazine, back in October. In the year that wouldn’t end, I’d finished my holiday three months early. However, the frustration was brief as the holiday spirit we all so desperately needed soon swept me up.
I tell you this because, for each edition of Prerogative Magazine, I can name an album or artist I was listening to while making it. Some of them might surprise you. One Holiday edition, I worked on while going through a breakup, so angry rock was the soundtrack to my Christmas ornament craft step by step. You’d never be able to tell from the product, but as the person behind the curtain, I have those associations.
I was inspired to write this article by a new artist, Olivia Rodrigo releasing her debut album, “Sour” this week.
The former Disney Channel star is 18-years-old and her music reflects that, but it brought back some memories for me. As I listened to the opening track, “brutal,” I was reminded of the teenage desperation to grow up that we all tend to go through. The line, “If someone tells me one more time ‘Enjoy your youth,’ I’m gonna cry,’ explains the premise of the song pretty well.
One line, “I can’t even parallel park,” made me laugh, but brought back memories of being 15-years-old, behind the wheel of my parents’ SUV, sobbing in between two parking cones I couldn’t seem to get the car in between correctly. Parallel parking was such a huge issue for me as a teen, but nowadays I can park my own SUV without even thinking too much about it.
I think this speaks to life and learning. The things that upset us so much at certain ages, we learn to live with, and even improve upon.
It can be fun to relive our youth through music. The music of an artist named “Lorde” immediately takes me back to late-night closing shifts at Elder-Beerman, a department store I worked at in college. Particularly, sitting at a stoplight, music blaring and contemplating what I was doing with my life. Again, I look back at that girl, me at 18-years-old thinking she knows what exhaustion is, and smile. At the time, she knew what her version of exhaustion and stress was, and it is entirely valid. But, I do envy what she thought her problems were sometimes.
I wonder when I will start looking back at myself now, at 27 years old, and smile at what stresses me out and hurts my heart at this age. I don’t know if it will be as stark of a contrast to my worries of teenagehood since my worries these days involve bills, work and the health of myself and my loved ones.
The pandemic has changed us all, me in particular. My worries these days aren’t even remotely close to what they were before this all began. My priorities are much clearer, and they are my family and loved ones. I don’t worry when people comment on my single status at 27. I don’t dwell on transgressions against me anymore. Life is too short to give those thoughts any more time or energy, and I’ve learned that oftentimes hurt people, hurt people.
Life has taught me good things come in time, to those who learn from their mistakes and work hard for the things they care about. You truly do live and learn.
— Contact Emily Rice at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow her on Twitter @BDTrice