Science Behind the Song


By Rebecca Zhong


All I Want by Joni Mitchell is the one that does it for me. I first heard it playing when I walked into the music room in intermediate school and was immediately taken back by how rich and painfully detailed each moment was. All I Want is the first track on her 1971 album Blue. And like many other songs, it treads the well-worn territory of what is often described as a ‘personal’ record. While the emotions and sentiments explored seem to be a universal experience, they are also imprisoned by surroundings known only to Mitchell.


As a 13-year-old, I wanted to fill the ambiguity left by Mitchell herself and make the surplus of expression my very own. When I listen to that record now, I remember lying on the speckled carpet at my best friend’s house, playing balderdash and deciding what love felt like for the first time. I remember the tungsten lights that framed my high school bedroom and the smell of lemongrass candles burning as I rushed to finish last minute internals. I remember parking outside McDonald’s and talking to my friends for hours as my fries slowly grew cold.


However, whenever I try to recall any of these memories under the absence of the song, I find it almost impossible to decipher the immediate memory itself, or the weight of the emotions that came with it. I don’t think I am entirely alone with this thought. The interconnectedness of music and memories is a universal experience. Without getting too technical, the part of the brain that is associated with memory is reliant on two areas, the hippocampus and the frontal cortex.


As you can imagine, these two areas are responsible for absorbing a large quantity of information every minute. However, the process of retrieving this information is not so simple. Music helps to evoke vivid memories because it provides both a rhythm and rhyme, which assist in unlocking parts of our stored information with cues. It is undeniable that music makes us incredibly nostalgic.


Listening to these tunes brings upon an element of continuity in our own lives.


The way in which music helps to evoke the visual cortex of the brain means we often immediately start associating the music we’re listening to with images from different periods of our lives. Every few years or so we may revisit our favourite intermediate bands or listen to our parents’ playlists that we heard on repeat during family road trips. Listening to these tunes brings upon an element of continuity in our own lives. It makes us recognise that whilst we may have changed significantly over the course of these years, commonalities still exist in who we were and who we are.


The net effect of nostalgia is that it provides us with an element of meaning to our lives. Revisiting past memories can be painful at times, as we often begin yearning for moments that were simpler and sweeter in nature. However, as we think back to these times, despite being laced in the bittersweet, we are often able to reflect on close relationships or places that are important to us. As a result, we often come out feeling supported. As we think back to the past, we are able to counteract the loneliness, confusion and lack of direction we may feel in the present. When we look fondly back on our past we naturally become more optimistic towards how events may unfold in the future.