“Thank you for the music, the songs I’m singing
Thanks for all the joy they’re bringing
Who can live without it, I ask in all honesty, what would life be?
Without a song or a dance what are we?
So I say thank you for the music, for giving it to me.” — ABBA
As I was driving to my yoga class this morning I was listening to “Casey’s Coast to Coast”, the old Casey Kasem show from when I was younger. I’ve always loved Casey Kasem. He was counting down the top hits from August 1985, so it was all songs from my senior year of high school.
The #1 song came on and it was “Shout” by Tears for Fears. I immediately flashed back to a classroom at Elizabeth Seton High School. We had a teacher who was frustrated by all of us girls in class talking and said sternly, “Don’t make me shout”, then we all spontaneously started singing “Shout”, much to his chagrin.
It’s funny music is so strongly tied to memories for most of us. There’s actually a scientific term for this: music-evoked autobiographical memories, or MEAM. Scientists studying this have demonstrated that listening to songs that are personally meaningful to people activates the parts of the brain that are linked to autobiographical memories and emotions. Your brain literally lights up when you hear a song that has a strong memory associated with it. In some cases, doctors have used songs that were significant to individuals with memory loss to help restore memory.
MEAM is why when I hear Pink Flloyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall” I flash back to the moment I fell in love. I picture me (wearing a lovely brown seude jacket) and the guy (black leather jacket) staring into each other’s eyes, holding hands, listening to that song and thinking we’d be together forever. Then I feel sad because it wasn’t meant to be.
MEAM is why when I hear Erasure’s “A Little Respect” I’m immediately in a bar in college, dancing as a group with my five roommates and swigging two-for-one Long Island Ice Teas. It’s why when I hear “You Are My Sunshine” I remember being a toddler and my grandpa sitting on the side of the bed singing that song to help me fall asleep. It’s why when I hear Depeche Mode’s “Black Celebration” I always remember the apartment I stayed at in Paris the summer I visited my glamorous French pen pal.
Hearing our favorite songs, or songs associated with positive memories actually triggers the release of dopamine, serotonin and oxytocin in our brains. These songs can literally make you feel happy.
The strongest associations between music and memory comes from songs you listened to between ages 12 and 22. This is because that’s a time when our brains undergo rapid development and things we loved during that time are actually wired into our brains through the creation of neural pathways.
The strong connection between music and social activities during your teen years makes these music associations even deeper. That’s why you hear a song on the radio now and think, “This music is crap. Why don’t they have good songs like when I was a kid?”.
Music is inextricably linked to your memories of fun times with friends, essentially a movie soundtrack for your life.
I remember that time a bunch of us camped out overnight at the box office (each telling our parents we were sleeping at someone else’s house) to get tickets to see Wham in concert, and blaring “Careless Whisper” repeatedly on the boom box.
I remember standing around a garbage can fire (it’s a city thing), drinking cheap beer and singing Joe Walsh’s “Life’s Been Good to Me So Far” along with our friends who had a garage band in high school.
And I remember very vividly dancing to Madonna’s “Crazy for You” at prom under the stars as we cruised around Lake Michigan, young and excited, with our whole lives ahead of us.
If there was a soundtrack for the movie of my life, these songs would be an important part of the album. What would you include on the soundtrack for YOUR life?
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Note: ABBA lyrics © Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC, Universal Music Publishing Group
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