By Nancy Buchan
Music has been described as the ‘soundtrack of our lives’, and for most of us living today, that’s pretty accurate. We’ve always had access to music –not just music being performed live, but music re-produced through vinyl recordings or cassette tapes or 8-tracks or iPods or computers or even player-pianos. My generation leaned heavily on radio stations to presumably play the coolest new thing or to introduce us to new musicians. Sometimes they were brave and experimental and sometimes they played only crap provided and pushed by the studios. TV shows allowed us to hear everything from symphony orchestras to the then revolutionary Rolling Stones. Then that medium morphed into MTV, which sent it a bit sideways with its preoccupation with visual looks and style. There’s less control of what is out there now – the all-powerful record companies and distributors have been knocked on their butt by the internet – but there is still plenty of music being played and preserved somehow all over the planet. Every generation seems to have their ‘own’ songs, and those songs can bring forth a memory of a time or place that is crystal clear.
Scientists say that music is stored and processed in our ‘medial pre-frontal cortex’. That’s the part of the brain behind our forehead that is active in the reasoning process and in memory retrieval. That is the last part of the brain to atrophy, which might account for why Alzheimers patients can still recall songs from their past when they can’t remember anything else. Music is also a right brain thing, and apparently different networks of neurons are activated, depending on whether a person is listening to music, playing an instrument or whether it involves lyrics. The parts of the brain that are involved in processing emotions light up with activity when hearing music. It also affects the production of hormones (look out), cortisol (stress and arousal), testosterone (aggression and arousal), and oxytocin (nurturing behavior). Music also causes endorphin release – a natural opiate. Kinda explains why all the church deacons try to keep those teen-agers away from that devil rock and roll, doesn’t it?
One study gave their subjects a list of songs from each stage of their lives – early childhood, grade school, middle school, high school and college. 30% of the songs elicited memories of a certain time and place, many of them tangled up with dancing and with cars, both places where music is important and likely to be heard. My friend Debbie got a brand new baby blue Mustang convertible in high school, and I can’t hear the song “Summer in the City” without picturing us riding around in her car – singing along – carefree and young and knowing everything. Another friend spent her teen years being terrified of railroad tracks after hearing the song about the couple who got stuck across some tracks and the girl ran back to get her boyfriend’s class ring and got squished by a train. My friend Michael can’t hear Pink Floyd’s song “Dark Side of the Moon” without remembering a full moon night a couple of days before xmas when he and his buddies drove a 1959 Mercedes through the Louisiana farm country to go to a party. Course the mushrooms they were eating might have something to do with the memories…..
I pestered a bunch of friends and relatives to tell me about their history with songs, and many responded with road trip stories. My buddy Diana hears the B52s song “Love Shack” and is transported to driving around in California drinking beer and going water skiing. Another friend remembers when he first heard Jaco Pastorius’ bass line in the Joni Mitchell song “Black Crow”, and was so startled at how radical it was that he rear ended somebody in Ft. Lauderdale during spring break. Unfortunately he was driving a rental car that he was not a registered driver for. My friend Dave is transported to the deck of a sailboat in the Caribbean when he hears the Crosby, Stills and Nash song “Southern Cross”. Another sailor buddy vividly remembers 27 years ago when he was doing a night sail from St. Croix to Norman Island in the British Virgin Islands – the moon was full, the waves were high, the water was luminescent and he was listening to Dire Straits song “Money Ain’t For Nothin”.
One of my fellow delinquent girlfriends took off at age 16 to see the world with a buddy of hers. She remembers sitting on a curb next to a large boulevard in Vancouver – broke, kinda scared, in big trouble with her folks, and yet exuberant with the experience – singing in two part harmony “You Picked a Fine Time to Leave Me Lucille”. I ran off to NYC at age 17 after listening about a hundred times to Joni Mitchell’s song “Night in the City”. Stole my Dad’s violin and left college after 4 months in search of whatever it was. Found out years later she was talking about Toronto, not NYC…. A writer friend of mine has a clear memory of sitting on the living room floor as a little kid, listening to Stravinsky’s “Petrouska” on a giant stereo/piece of furniture. The album cover had a crazy painting on it of phantoms flying through the night that gave him nightmares. Hearing that piece now still gives him the creeps. My Aunt LaVeta, who is ninety-something, loves the song “Amazing Grace” cause it was her Dad’s favorite, and though he’s been gone for decades she can clearly picture him when she hears it. One of the coolest responses I got was from her son Jack, who says that “Songs are little time machines that are very powerful and which become little destinations. Once a week or so I have to immerse myself in old music because it is so grounding.” Singer David Scott, who just wrote a book about his life in the music business, said he looked up the Top Ten songs from different times of his past and used them as a road map to figure out where he was and what he was doing.
The song “El Paso” is impossible for me to play without cracking up. Thirty some years ago while playing with a bluegrass band at a small bar in Mancos, Colorado, the whole audience got up on cue in the middle of that song and turned around and dropped trou. They mooned the band! I loved it, but I’ve never been able to get through that song since.
My friend June said certain songs may remind her of a boyfriend, or a time and place, but that much of what she listened to then she still enjoys listening to now, no matter what the connection. She’s always been the glue for a bunch of us old buddies, and I realize now it’s because she holds on to her friends, like her favorite songs.
As a musician not only is my life cluttered with songs/events/feelings etc., but I realize I might be a small part of someone else’s musical memories. I could play a song tonight that someone in the audience will have a mental video of 30 years down the road. They’ll remember the name of the club, what they were wearing, what they had for dinner and the touch of their new boyfriends’ hand. It’s a privilege and an honor to be part of that.
Make some new memories and get out and hear live music when it is offered up! Check Gringo Star’s listing of live music offerings in this area – there’s a bunch of excellent musicians around here who love to play and deserve your support!
“Music is the art which is most nigh to tears and memory.” Oscar Wilde, Irish poet, novelist…
“In memory, everything seems to happen to music.” Tennessee Williams, American playwright
“A bird does not sing because it has an answer. It sings because it has a song.” Chinese proverb
Lifelong professional musician Nancy Buchan and her husband Charley built a house in Dominical 20 years ago, and moved there full time after Hurricane Katrina swept them out of their beloved New Orleans. Nancy plays her 5 string violin in a variety of situations – from rock and roll with Ben Jammin’ and the Howlers to jazz with C.R. pianist Manuel Obregon to Bach at beach weddings. She has been featured on over 50 cds and teaches violin at the Escuela de Musica Sinfonica in San Isidro. Contact her at [email protected]