Music And Memory: The Portal To My Past

Whenever I hear Friday I’m in Love by The Cure, I’m transported back to 15 years ago. It was my dad’s tune of choice for the car journey to school every Friday morning, and my family and I would sing it on repeat for the ten minutes it took to drop my sister and I off at the gates. On hearing the familiar lyrics “I don’t care if Monday’s blue,” I can immediately picture myself in my hideous bottle green uniform, seat belt strapped diagonally across my body, hurtling along the dual carriageway with my backpack at my feet and my sister at my side. This triggering of memories from a piece of music is something almost everyone can relate to – hear a song from decades ago and you’ll be able to feel every emotion from the particular moment it connects you to, like being in your very own personal Tardis. How magical is that? 

The link between music and memory is somewhat of a contentious issue. It can be an unwelcome reminder of a time you’d rather forget; when you’re in a bar, having fun with friends, and the song that was playing when your ex broke your heart starts reverberating out of the age-old speakers. The familiar hum of the bass in your chest can unravel you in seconds, the group at the table none the wiser to your dismantling before their eyes. But, it can also be a positive experience – hearing a song that reminds you of a good time can ignite a feeling in your chest that you didn’t expect; it can send you unexpected levels of energy, positivity and happiness that you hadn’t banked on.

The link between hearing a piece of music and a specific memory is a phenomenon which particularly reminds us of our teenage and younger years, explained Tiffany Jenkins in a piece for BBC:

“Memories stimulated by music often come from particular times in our lives. Classic hits take us back to our teenage years and our twenties, much more than songs of later years. Psychologists have called it the ‘reminiscence bump’. It may work this way because this is an especially important and exciting time in our lives, when we are experiencing things for the first time and when we become independent.”

She’s definitely on to something. As I wrote in this piece for Glamour, a side effect of my depression is that my long-term memory has basically gone to shit. Ask me about a specific party I attended with uni friends 6 years ago and I’ll probably not be able to recall even being there, but play me a song that was number one on the chart and looped on repeat in a sweaty Jesmond 4-bed and I’ll remember where exactly I was standing and who I was surrounded by when I heard it.

“Music is a portal to my past, a reminder of both good and bad times throughout my life”

Music is a portal to my past, a reminder of both good and bad times throughout my life. There are songs that have soundtracked my life in myriad ways, some positively, others linked to unpleasant memories. Some examples:

Unbelievable – EMF

I used to play this song before things that set my anxiety on overdrive. Plane journey? EMF. First day at university? EMF. First date? EMF. Hearing the lyrics “you’re unbelievable” does wonders for the confidence. I still play it before every job interview.

Not Nineteen Forever – The Courteeners

Driving in the car with an ex-boyfriend. Not necessarily a great memory, as he perpetually exhibited the same levels of maturity as a nineteen year old, despite having a good few years on the title of the song. “Pull yourself together” are particularly pertinent lyrics.

Only You – Yazoo

Singing with my mum in the garden during a family barbeque. A song that transcends decades and one that tugs on my heartstrings every time I hear it. My best friends text me when they hear it because I’ve played it so much I’ve basically forced them to associate it with me. A beauty.

Wildest Moments – Jessie Ware

Driving my first car at the age of seventeen (a clunky Picasso – think Bryn’s from Gavin and Stacey, but in a fetching navy hue). My best friend and I dubbed this ‘our song’ during the summer months that stretched between the ending of high school and the beginning of university – the first time that the course of our lives would veer in opposite directions. We were excited, we were scared of losing each other, we were unsure what the fuck we were doing. This song united us. We also heard it live at the Isle of Wight festival two years later, when I was shouting down the phone at her for getting lost and screaming, “I’M AT THE ICE-CREAM VAN. HURRY THE FUCK UP! YOU’RE MISSING OUR SONG.” Happy memories.

Wonderful Tonight – Eric Clapton

My mum and dad’s first dance at their wedding. As they got married approximately 32 years ago, I was obviously not around, but it’s a song they talk about with such fondness that it’s always stuck with me. Sidenote: I went on a date a few weeks ago, this song came on shuffle as we drank wine looking out at a thunderstorm, I thought it might be a sign he was my future husband (it was not).

Me – The 1975

A sad reminder of an unspeakably dark time in my life. A friend of mine was telling me about having sex for the first time, I was extremely depressed and wondering what it would be like if I didn’t exist.

Robbers – The 1975

This band features more than once because they were the band I listened to in my formative years. When their first album dropped in 2013, I raced to Sainsbury’s (in the Picasso) to snap it up. This particular song takes me back to living in a 2-bed flat with another best friend, a soulmate, who would sing this on request for me when I was homesick and living a plane ride away from my family. 

You could say that this is a varied list, with some bleak memories and some amazing ones. But all these songs and memories are an amalgamation of everything that I am, and everything that I’ve experienced, so I wouldn’t even erase the painful ones if I had the choice.

Music is one of the most important things in my life; it’s been my companion during periods of heartbreak, ecstasy, celebration, grief and sadness. The memories attached to songs are a tapestry of my life, they make me who I am. Without them, I wouldn’t remember what I’d done last week, never mind ten years ago. I’m grateful for the link between the two, as painful, confronting and startling as they can be, because they’re me. I’m them – and I think that’s pretty magical.

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