Why music, especially old music, can tap into our deepest, most meaningful life memories

CBC Radio Special49:00Music to my ears

Dylan Sinclair’s musical education began early, in a gold Nissan Murano. Sinclair, a Juno-nominated artist in Toronto, still remembers driving with his father, listening to R&B cuts. This was Kevin Sinclair’s favorite kind of music. Even Dylan learned to love it.

One song stands out: Excuse me, miss By Chris Brown. Dylan was a little tyke: four, maybe five years old.

“I remember my dad playing his album, like, every time we went in the car,” Sinclair recalled. “And this song, it was so fun. I don’t know, as a kid, I was able to relate to it. And to this day, it’s still like one of my favorite songs.”

When Sinclair hears the song, he becomes a little boy again, sitting in Murano’s back seat.

“And he’s got it on repeat. That, Mariah Carey, just R&B,” Sinclair said with a laugh.

Juno-nominated R&B artist Dylan Sinclair has fond – and vivid – memories of listening to music as a child in his father’s Nissan Murano. (I love the studio)

Most of us are familiar with a song that evokes a certain memory: a song comes on at a party or on the radio, and immediately, we are transported to another chapter in our lives, to the time or moment when that song weaved its way. in our lives.

Connection is one of the reasons why music—especially old music—is so meaningful to people. It’s also why music has become such an important coping strategy during the COVID-19 pandemic, connecting us with people we can’t be with during lockdowns, physical distancing and travel restrictions.

“Music is a great way to bring us back to earlier pre-Covid times when we were actually able to be a little more together with friends and family,” said Kelly Jakubowski, a musical memory researcher at Durham University in England. .

“Many of our memories associated with music involve other people, and this has been shown to be more than certain other cues. So I think, in these times when we’ve had this absence from social contact, music can really bring back these memories. Loved ones especially well.”

Old songs are popular

Since the beginning of the pandemic, we have seen a huge increase in the popularity of old music on streaming platforms. According to music sales data provider MRC, older songs will account for 70 percent of the US music market in 2021. That has increased by 65 percent in 2020.

Yes, only songs released in the last 18 months count as new music. But that thirst for old tunes is evident elsewhere, too, including film and TV soundtracks.

unfamiliar things British singer Kate Bush returned to the top of the charts Running up that hillA song released by him in 1985 Top gun Movie flow tripled Heaven in your eyesCanadian rock band Loverboy’s multi-platinum hit from 1986.

The 2021 Super Bowl halftime show was also a feast of nostalgia rap with artists Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, 50 Cent and Eminem.

Going back to the first pandemic lockdown period in April 2020, Spotify reported a 54 percent increase in listeners making “nostalgic-themed playlists” and an increased share of listening to music from the 1950s, ’60s, ’70s and ’70s. The 80s.

This is partly our digital age, which allows music lovers to explore and discover music from any time period, rather than relying on what comes on the radio, or might hear at a party or dance hall.

But according to Jakubowski, music can also act as a social surrogate, which is what many of us need during the pandemic, to combat loneliness and isolation.

“Even when we’re not with other people, the feeling of music is kind of comforting and makes us feel like another person is present. It’s kind of an imaginary friend,” she said.

“Maybe the message of the song resonates with us and makes us realize that we are not alone.”

Canadian music icon Jann Arden echoes that sentiment.

“Music is so important … it informs your childhood and your youth,” said Jan Arden. (Vivian Rasote/CBC)

“Music is very important,” she said. “It informs your childhood and your youth. It sings to all. It is balm for the soul. It is a nurse and a counselor and a friend.”

For Fatima Elrafi, music is a way to feel closer to her mother, who passed away in 2013. When Fatima and her siblings grew up in Calgary, Susan Elrafi was forever singing. I just called to say I love you by Stevie Wonder. She would even call them on the phone and sing them for effect.

It drove kids crazy when they were little. But when Susan became seriously ill, the song’s significance deepened.

Fatima Elrafi, left, and her mother Susan Elrafi. Susan died in 2013. Fatima was taken to her mother’s last day when she heard Stevie Wonder’s I Just Called to Say I Love You. (Elrafie Family)

“When it was her last day in the hospital, all the hospital staff had this one volunteer come in and actually bring a piano to her hospital bedroom, and they played a song for her and sang for her, like: the whole whole unit, which is crazy,” Elrafie recalled.

“She was really sick, so she wasn’t really showing much emotion, but when they started singing to her, she had this big smile on her face, literally from one cheek to the other. Her eyes lit up so beautifully.”

Now, Elrafi can remember everything from what she wore that day — a purple headscarf and a new tan jacket — to the smell of fresh coffee in her mother’s room, which hospital staff brought in carts for family members gathered at her mother’s house. the bed

“When I hear that song, which isn’t often, all I can think of in my head is that big gorgeous smile,” Elrafi said. “It brings me back to that specific moment, even just a 10-second time slot.”

A collision of memories

Jakubowski notes that we usually listen to the same songs over and over again—especially our favorites—more often than we re-read a book or re-watch a movie.

That repetition helps cement memories, especially of our youth, when we’re still growing and developing our identities as individuals — including our taste in music.

This is related to a phenomenon known as the “reminiscence bump”, in which we most vividly remember events in our lives during our teenage and young adulthood, including music from that period.

Not only that, but music is often linked to the most important moments in our lives: difficult memories like falling in love, leaving home, getting married, or heartbreak.

Down the road, when we hear that song again, we remember the minute sensory details of that moment. Researchers in Jakubowski’s field use the term “music-evoked autobiographical memory,” or MEAM, to describe the experience.

When Hafsa listens to Maqsood less By Flo Rida, she’s back in grade 3, on a school bus in Calgary. She remembers getting on the bus at the end of the year with all the windows down as it played on the radio.

“When it comes on, the whole bus will burst into chorus, and be waving around,” she said.

“It’s a great memory of coming home, and kids of all ages, from all backgrounds, singing together. Most of us didn’t know what that meant.

“But every time I hear that song, I’m reminded of the part when people of different ages can gather around a piece of music and not always be plugged into their personal instruments.”


Written and produced by Elizabeth Witte, with files from Meagan Reid. Click “Listen” above to play Music to My Ears, featuring interviews with musicians Jann Arden, Hawksley Workman and Dylan Sinclair, and musical memoirs from Canadians from coast to coast.

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