By Lucy Wormald (she/her)
Lifestyle and Culture Editor
| Illustration by Yi Jong (she/her)
When I was sixteen I was plagued by the particular brand of woe that comes from transitioning to adulthood. I was naive of my capacity to have a sense of self. I was trying spectacularly to ignore the doors of autonomy and sexuality that were opening in front of me and so in I wandered, to the labyrinth of teen angst.
The autumn of that year I watched a film called Palo Alto by Gia Coppola. It was a hot mess of adolescent lust, boredom and emotional disorientation. It was hazy and dreamy and clichè and it floored my callow little heart. I was profoundly affected by the portrait it painted of teenage infatuation and I felt an intense nostalgia for something I had never even experienced. Consumed by its image of first love, the film made me feel sick with a yearning I could not shake. Pushing a finger into the wound, as angst demands you do, I listened to the film’s soundtrack every day for six weeks.
The experience is guttural, sickening and delightful. It makes my skin prickle and my heart pump a little harder.
The soundtrack is mostly songs and scores by Devonté Hynes, of Blood Orange. They are slow and synth-y dirges of longing and malaise. I listened to them on repeat and they became deeply entangled with, and symbolic of, my messy encounter with angst. Seven years on, when I hear these songs, I am drowned so viscerally in the melancholy of my sixteen-year-old self. The experience is guttural, sickening and delightful. It makes my skin prickle and my heart pump a little harder. The peculiar intensity of this emotional transportation is a sensation I have only experienced when listening to music.
Music has been a mnemonic device for thousands of years, beginning with oral storytelling. I often thought its relationship with memory was one of the great wonders of being human, a mystery that could not be explained, only felt.
I like listening to the album and intensely re-feeling a certain naivety I had about this boy, when all I knew was that he walked like a cowboy and felt easy to be around.
Yet studies show music is one of the strongest ways to evoke memories, both our own and that which are of a collective romanticised past outside our own experiences. And there is a science behind how this works after all.
The process is a curious concoction of biology and psychology. When we first hear a song, it stimulates our brain’s auditory cortex and we convert the rhythms and melodies into a coherent whole. From there, our reaction to music depends on how we interact with it. If you sing along in your head, the premotor cortex will activate, helping plan and coordinate movements. If it's time to bust a move, your neurons will synchronise to the beat and send out nerve impulses. If this interaction with a piece of music is during a period of intense emotional activity, it gets encoded in the medial prefrontal cortex, which maintains information about your personal life. It is this thread of emotion which binds the music to the moment and heightens the response to the music later on. Music and memory specialist Dr Jakubowski says when we make emotional connections to a song, we create a strong memory trace that becomes lacquered with an intense copy of this emotion.
Songs triggering the recall of self-defining moments in one’s past are called ‘music-evoked autobiographical memories’ or MEAMS. Our capacity for cuing these memories is facilitated by the frequency by which humans listen to music and our tradition of coupling music with significant life events. Music is deeply interwoven with our perceptual systems, making music less a matter of notes and patterns and more a matter of fundamental human experience. We never just hear music. Our experience of it is saturated in emotion, a barometer of headspace, a reflection of culture, and often profoundly tied to people.
The week I first started seeing my boyfriend, the Australian rapper Allday released his album Starry Night Over the Phone. It’s a soft and sweet album and the streak of youthful brooding that runs through it met my mood of uncertainty and anticipation. Whenever I hear it now I am vividly transported to walking down The Terrace in Wellington to meet him for our first date. It was May and the air was nippy and trussed with smoke. I like listening to the album and intensely re-feeling a certain naivety I had about this boy, when all I knew was that he walked like a cowboy and felt easy to be around.
Talking to my friend, she tells me her most powerful music memory is 'Bette Davis Eyes' by Kim Carnes. The sound of the intro plunges her into the feeling of dancing in her grandparents’ rumpus room as a child. The room was poorly lit, golden with dark corners. She remembers how her grandad knew every word and she sang along as though she did too. She tells how hearing it now makes her feel woozy and warm. The memory is two-fold in influence. For her grandad, who is trudging through the later stages of dementia, this song is one of the only stimuli that will trigger a memory for him.
Our most intense emotions and defining memories are held in notes, chords and lyrics. The immense power music has to consume people with emotion relies on the tight linkages between hearing, remembering, and our myriad other ways of knowing. Science has explained away the mystery, but the experience of time-travel through music is still such a wonder.