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Not With The Band: Music Is Better Than This Overrated Madeleine

Music And Nostalgia

I believe songs and music in general, is an automatic access to memory, not random as Daft Punk claims it, but very specific. Each song you have heard during a crucial moment of your life will be forever associated with this moment and listening to the song is a magic time traveling machine, an instant Proust’s madeleine, but much more powerful than the little cake.

Based on my experience, and it’s absolutely not scientific, music invades our memory much more than taste? I just witnessed it a few days ago, my car radio was playing The Stranglers’ ‘Always the Sun’, a 27 year-old song! And instantaneously I was back in Nice, France where I was doing some kind of cave excavation (I was part of an archaeological team for the summer), and before I had the time to actively think about it, I was remembering this guy named Manu, who was always playing this song… he was a heavy drinker and smoker, had a pet rat, and liked all kinds of interesting music beside the Stranglers, and he was also into the Lord of the Rings! How did all these details could suddenly pop up in my brain in a second, while driving? Just because of a song? That’s very powerful and, sorry for Marcel, but nothing like this never happened to me because of food.

I have other similar memories, some extremely personal, and I have always wondered about this time-traveling phenomenon. Simon and Garfunkel’s concert in Central Park is definitively associated with the birth of my cousin, almost any AC/DC song will immediately transport me back to childhood (my brother used to blast ‘For Those About to Rock We Salute You’ in his room), and Dire Straits’ self titled to some summer vacation in Brittany. Because music is so emotional, it helped to make all these tiny life episodes (when you think about the amount of information you have stored in your brain in 40 or 50 years) more memorable… almost any song you like can bring up a specific episode of your life and music is so powerful that studies have demonstrated that people with Alzheimer’s disease can often regain their cognitive focus for a while when exposed to familiar music that evoke memories of earlier events! Neurobiologist Oliver Sacks explains this very well.

Of course, we hear music all the time, and not all of it will be really memorable, but the more emotional the event and the song, the stronger the memory, and the less time it will take for the memory to come back at the surface. I have another very personal example, with Arcade Fire’s ‘Funeral’. I made a copy of the album for a guy I liked a lot, and he played it the first time we got intimate. I ended up liking the album much more than he ever did, and I ended up loving him much more than… oh you know and that’s why ‘Funeral’ is still very special to me, still painful but beautiful.

But Daniel J. Levitin, in his book ‘This is Your Brain on Music’ is making a very interesting point: ‘“A maxim of memory theory is that unique cues are the most effective at bringing up memories; the more items or context a particular cue is associated with, the less effective it will be at bringing up a particular memory.’ In another words, this time traveling machine for a particular song is far less effective if we listen to this song over and over, meaning I should never listen to ‘Funeral’ again.

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