‘Fast Car’ by Tracy Chapman is the song that does it for me. I’d bought the cassette of her debut album at the airport on the way to Germany in the summer of 1988. Now, just hearing the line ‘Speed so fast, felt like I was drunk’, I’m teleported back to hot sticky nights in the Black Forest, trying to chat up girls in pidgin German, and the footloose freedom of my youth. But try without the aide of the song to recall a particular event from my working summer on the Swiss border and the memories lack the technicolor and the richness of the detail. They’re just not as emotive.
We all share this. Hear a piece of music or a song from decades ago and instantly the years fall away and you’re transported back to that particular moment, with the efficiency of a time machine. We know inherently the relationship between music and memory is powerful. Which of us cannot but be moved seeing dementia patients light up and rejoin the world when they’re played music from their heyday? The power of these audio triggers is an insight into the deepest reaches of our minds.
Our generations are far from the first to have this relationship with music and memory. Long before we had mastered the art of capturing information through writing it down, we depended on the oral tradition to carry stories and songs from one generation to the next. In the 3rd century, Cormac McArt the High King of Ireland had, among the ten people in constant attendance to him, a chief bard and an Ollamh re Ceoil, or house band. Eat your heart out Ryan Tubridy.
But why do we recall strong emotion as well as the lyrics of the songs? It’s down to two different types of memory according to the experts. Explicit memory – where we consciously retrieve the past. We ask ourselves who was I with? Where did I go? And Implicit memory – the more unintentional form of memory, filed away in our unconscious mind. And we know that memories stored in our unconscious minds while not as straightforward to access, can remain in place for a long time, even a lifetime. It is the explicit memories that are destroyed by dementia, but the implicit memories are the ones that can bring those sufferers back to us by tapping into them through the songs and music of their youths.
‘Fast Car’ came into my life in the summer of 1988 when I was 19 years old. If you think of the songs that bring back memories for you, chances are they came into your life somewhere between the ages of 16 and 25. This is the period known as the Reminiscence Bump. As we get older it’s the time in our lives of which we tend to remember most. It’s that time in our lives when everything is new and meaningful. A time of intense relationships, new experiences, excitement and adulthood, but without the full panoply of responsibility that waits around the corner – marriage, family, mortgage and career.
And these musical memories are often too shared with our peers. Any wedding band worth their salt use this mnemonic to get and keep the dance floor full from the start to the end of the night. Old time waltzes followed by a bit of Country & Irish, and on to Brown Eyed Girl before segueing into the hits that the bride and groom would have partied to in their teens. Frank n’ Walters ‘After All’, anyone? It’s a formula, and we know it is but it doesn’t stop us jumping from our chairs when the first bar of Katriona And The Waves ‘Walking on Sunshine’ play. While the specific memories these songs trigger will be different for everyone, rolling them out brings each generation back to their own carefree periods before it all got a bit serious.
Music also has the power to make us feel like we know what it was like to live in a period even if we weren’t around at the time. Think of the opening guitar riff to The Beatles ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand’ and tell me if you also hear the screams of hundreds of girls with their hands to their faces as they drown out their idols. Very few of us got to see the Beatles play live, but we associate them and their music with positivity of 1960s London, with it’s cutting edge fashionistas, and the optimism of that generation. We ‘remember’ memories we didn’t even experience first hand.
But it’s the personal memories evoked by music that matter most to us. An evening spent digging out and playing old songs and letting the memories flow back is an evening well spent. It’s the aural equivalent of an old album of half-remembered photographs, that call up not only events but the laughs, tears and thrills that went with them. Our youths may be long gone, but our ability to access those halcyon days is there for us all to enjoy. What’s your trigger song?