Music and memories. We hear an old pop tune on the radio or MP3 player and it quickly summons memories — good, bad, in-between — about a chapter of our life we associate with that music. Are there any stronger connections between popular culture and our life experiences?
The Andrews Sisters or Glenn Miller and The Greatest Generation. The Beatles or Motown and classic Baby Boomers. Music can be an instant on switch to a personal nostalgia channel.
Gen Jonesers and pop music
For many Generation Jonesers, Billy Joel provides a body of memory-making music. The songs contained in volumes I and II of his Greatest Hits album were especially popular during my college and law school years (late 70s through mid 80s). When I listen to them in the rough order of their release as singles, I’m treated to a year-by-year “mind’s eye” trip down memory lane.
Among the 25 songs in the album, my favorites are “Piano Man,” “New York State of Mind,” “You May Be Right,” “Allentown,” “Tell Her About It,” “Uptown Girl,” and “The Longest Time.”
But they’re not on the list because they’re necessarily the best songs, objectively speaking. No, I include them mainly because I associate memories with each. Overall, they capture a meaningful time in my life when I was finishing college in Indiana and moving to New York for law school. In fact, it’s hard for me to listen to the album for its own sake, because the memories connected with those songs are so sharp.
Given my druthers, I prefer the popular music of the first half of the last century to the stuff that followed. Yup, I’m more likely to listen to Frank Sinatra than to The Clash, though I enjoy both. In any event, I know I’m not alone among my peers when I turn on that 80s “oldies” station and fill with memories.
A song and a smile
Associations between music and memories can run deep, into the recesses of minds otherwise harder to reach. About ten years ago, I was part of a group that gave short vocal concerts at senior homes. At one of our little gigs, I sang a classic from the World War II era, “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square.” Here’s a lovely Vera Lynn rendition:
While I sang, a resident of the home grew the sweetest smile on her face. The way her eyes lit up, I could tell that the song resonated with her, that it touched some part of her experience. After our show was over, I thought I’d say hello and went over to her. But my effort to strike up a friendly chat quickly revealed that she was non-responsive to verbal messages, that she had withdrawn back to the place that likely led to her to be living in a senior home.
It was a quick lesson: Music could reach her in a way that ordinary conversation could not. And it could still cause her to smile.