Music and Memories on the Yellowhead towards Yorkton
Are there songs that bring you back to a certain time, place, or feeling? Here we explore the emotional connection between our brains and music.
I spent the better part of 7 years driving a progressively extending stretch of the Yellowhead Highway, settling on the long haul between Edmonton and my hometown of Saskatoon.
Just outside of North Battleford, there is a red Viterra grain elevator, across the highway from Ritchie Bros Auctioneers. It was around here that Reunion Tour by The Weakerthans would come on the car stereo.
It might not have been every time, it might have even been my own doing - the lyrics “A burst of moon, a blast of air / An understanding somewhere / Between the turning signal clicks / The shiny food we found with gasoline…” connecting the long prairie drive to feelings of homesickness and an understanding of what takes us away from home and what brings us back.
I drove that portion of Highway 16 for the last time in July 2019, right around this time last year. I’m now living on the East Coast of Canada. Rolling golden canola fields and the smell of sweetgrass have been replaced with more trees than I can count, punctuated by rocky terrain and the faint scent of the sea. But when The Weakerthans come on, I am once again on that stretch of the Trans-Canada southeast of the Battlefords, where it’s nothing but sky and the valley housing the North Saskatchewan River is just visible.
Have you ever wondered why sounds can bring us back to a time from our past or stir up long-forgotten emotions? Why does music make us so nostalgic?
Music functions as a mnemonic device; the rhythm and rhyme improve our retention of stories and other verbal cues. Before literacy skills became more commonplace, oral stories were often told as poems, chants, or songs because the cadence of these forms was easier to remember. It wasn’t people’s love of the lute that kept the Bards employed, it was that folks preferred their tales to be sung. This is also why you remember the lyrics to say, Funky Cold Medina by Tone Loc, but you have a hard time remembering someone’s name the first time you hear it.
When we listen to music, the limbic system in our brains is activated. This area supports the processing of emotions and controls memory. Our brains take in vast amounts of information daily but retrieving this information is not always easy.
The two main divisions of our memories are implicit and explicit memory. Explicit memory is the conscious mind, responsible for the storage and retrieval of facts. The implicit memory is not as easily verbalized.
The implicit memory stores experiences and cues that occur outside our stream of consciousness. These can surface unexpectedly and emotionally. This makes the implicit memory powerful and durable. Researchers have shown that music can elicit a strong response from people with Alzheimer’s Disease, because of that emotional connection with the implicit memory.
Often the songs that make us the most nostalgic come from a particular time in our lives. This is usually a formative period that defines our autobiographical memory of ourselves. Or rather, how we view ourselves as individuals. There’s a reason that the angsty music of your teen years, your wedding song, or a song that was playing during another big event stick with you. For me, I connect that song by The Weakerthans to a time of transition and change; a time where my autobiographical memory of myself was shifting.
The connection between music and emotion is a core component of music therapy. For individuals with mood disorders, music can serve as reflection and expression that may be difficult to vocalize. Music as a healing-aid has been highlighted for people with depression. Listening to music may help individuals recall difficult parts of their lives and open the door to reflection. This may not always be positive, but the examination of these complex experiences may be a step towards healing for some.
The right song can invoke feelings of great joy and great sadness, depending on our implicit connection to it. In this way, music can serve as an escape. A means to transport ourselves to another time, place, or environment. Is there a song that brings you back to a certain time or place? Tell us in the comments below - we'd love to hear your stories!