I was driving along 580 and I found myself completely transported. A song came on, and I was no longer driving but in the passenger seat of my Dad’s red mazda on the way to visit my grandma in 1995. Elvis Costello’s ‘Allison’ lilted and I was completely at peace in the moment.
I have always been fascinated and moved by how deeply music is connected to our memory. How a song can cause you to recall not only a visual cue, but an emotional and physical cue as well. As part of a reading group, I have been exploring the book, ‘How Music Works’ by David Byrne of The Talking Heads. Byrne makes such a profound and simple point in his preface - explaining that the way in which we experience music has so little to do with solely what we hear. Our interface with music includes our vision, our emotions, our company, the surroundings and the list continues on…
My intrigue for this subject stemmed not only from personal experience in finding nostalgia in music, but more so from interactions with my grandmother. My mother’s mother, Pat, was diagnosed with dementia about 8 years ago. We have watched her decline over the years with sadness, certainly, but the years have also been tenderly infused with moments of true joy and poignant signs of clarity. For me, those moments have always surrounded music. There eventually came in time Pat’s journey when, I , her youngest grandchild just became ‘honey’ like everyone else. It was strange to know someone so well, and have them feign knowledge of you - not maliciously of course - but to preserve what may be left of one’s memory. My mom suggested I come by the memory care facility my Grandmother lives in, and play some music. In her youth, Grandma was a singer, and a very good one at that. I brought in some of her favorites and began to play and sing. She quickly perked up and started to sing along. She couldn’t remember my name, but she didn’t miss a word. I had chosen Volare, a song popularized by Dean Martin in the 50’s. The wildest part of it all, was that as we were singing together, she was recalling full, wonderful, vivid memories of her own. Simultaneously, I was envisioning her singing in the kitchen on Thanksgiving, filling up deviled eggs while my Grandpa pretended to untie her apron. Even wilder, is that I now have built a memory on top of those I knew previous, now recalling her joyfully singing a song she loves with complete abandon - accompanied on ukulele by someone who is familiar to her, but no longer known.
I found a study conducted by Dr. Laura Mosqueda, the Director of Geriatrics for UCI School of Medicine - where she explained how the mind responds to music. She has been working with Alzheimer's and Dementia patients for most of her career. She began listing the areas of the Brain that are engaged when hearing and categorizing music. Truly, my friends, the experience of hearing music itself touches almost every synapse we have as human people. Diseases like Dementia and Alzheimer's affect certain parts of the brain, however because music is utilizing so many other areas in the brain, the mind has a stronger reaction, even if the memory center is being compromised. The mind is simply, incredible. Each lobe and nerve-synapse are collaborating on their tasks and building a symphony of memory, rhythm, pitch, and the like.
Yet, with all this said, it begged me to inquire about a deeper, more sobering thought. If the mind is so connected and linked with music in every part of our brains, and furthermore, our memory.. I would be remiss not to ask, “Should I be more vigilant about what goes in there?” I sincerely pose that question to those reading. Music is like fuel for so many of us - shouldn’t we be aware of what we’re letting become, often ‘lifelong’ memory and import? For those of us who are beginning to make our own music and are hoping to inspire others...are your songs something you’d be proud to sing with your granddaughter? Yet, chiefly, and most importantly - I find that moving forward, we are compelled to engage with music fully. We are to write our own melodies, to join with friends and see live shows, to be smitten with a song and play it over and over (don’t worry - we all do it). And furthermore, let our bodies and minds experience music as they were meant to. Taking it all in - finding peace in the moments where a tune takes us to another significant moment in who we are as people - people like Pat who sang Volare at the Italian Club Dance Social in Emeryville - people who let memory and music collaborate for life.