Music and Memory

It happens to all of us. We hear a song and immediately get taken back to a certain event in our lives. The song and event are forever connected. When we hear a particular song, our minds, like a scanner on a bar code, retrieve that image from deep within our memory banks. That song has been assigned a time and place and allows us to travel back in time, if only in our heads.

We all have fallen victim to highway hypnosis. You know, you’re driving and a certain song comes on the radio and you’re mesmerized. We hear the first notes and, immediately and hypnotically, are taken back. We’re put in a trance and when we come to 10 minutes later we wonder how we got there.

Music has the power to produce powerful emotions from both ends of the spectrum. We may find ourselves happily singing along to every note, or we may get chills from a haunting memory. How about a song that reminds you of an ex? Everyone’s got those. Give me an ex-girlfriend, and I’ll give you a song. It’s amazing the power that music has on our psyche.

This phenomenon was on full display last month when I had the pleasure to attend a Paul McCartney concert. It was a dream come true for me, as I have been a Beatles fan since I was, as Paul would say, a lad. And Sir Paul is one of the few people on earth who could rightfully be called a living legend. His songs, both Beatle and post-Beatle, have been enjoyed by multiple generations—the stadium had as many AARP-eligible as it did millennials—and carry with them powerful memories, as I would find out.

About a quarter of the way through the two-and-a-half-hour show, McCartney performed the love song “And I Love Her.” The place was mellow and singing along. My wife gave me a nudge and said, “Look at that guy right there,” pointing to a gentlemen two rows ahead. “That song must remind him of something because he’s crying.” When I looked, sure enough the man was clearly emotional, tears streaming down his face. I said, “Yeah, maybe it reminds him of an ex or something. That’s amazing.”

Even more amazing is what happened later on in the set. A new song began, which I identified after the first two notes (remember “Name That Tune”?).

                             Once there was a way, to get back homeward….

I was frozen in place. I couldn’t move. When McCartney got to…

                             Sleep, pretty darling, do not cry. And I will sing a lullaby

I found myself wiping away my own tears. That song, “Golden Slumbers,” is the song that I sang to my mother-in-law mere hours before she succumbed to cancer. That summer day in 2014, when I had a chance to say goodbye to her, I spontaneously started whisper-singing “Golden Slumbers” to her as she lay on her death bed. Hearing McCartney that night singing it live was so overwhelming, it took me right back there to her bedside. My wife looked at me but didn’t say a word. She just grabbed my hand because she knew exactly what was going through my mind.

Another surreal moment was watching my mom enjoy “Yesterday.” Here’s a woman from the old country, and to say she is not knowledgeable of contemporary rock is understating it. She wouldn’t know Mick Jagger if he ate baklava at her kitchen table. But she knows McCartney. Watching her mouth the words made me realize the magnitude of his fame. When “Ob-La-Di-Ob-La-Da” came on, I was grinning from ear to ear. We all have our favorite Beatles song, and that one is mine.

I’m sure others in the crowd had similar, if not as poignant, experiences with other songs. Whether it’s “Yesterday” or “Let It Be,” listening to an original member of the greatest band the world has ever known sing it live is enough to rev up anyone’s emotional engine.

Maybe I’m amazed? No, I definitely was amazed! The entire evening. The concert was happy, sad, and one that I will never forget.