The Power of Music and Memories


I have always loved when a song comes on that brings me back to a certain time, place, feeling. The power that music has in our memory is incredible, but is even more powerful when the song is associated with major milestones in life.

August is the time of year when millions of kids head off to college and leave home for the first time. This once in a lifetime moment is literally and figuratively life changing. Leaving home marks the end of adolescence and the start of a journey for independence and adulthood (or so we hope). It is a time filled with hope, excitement and terror for the unknowns of a new life waiting to be lived. There is sorrow and heart ache for leaving family and friends, mixed with the thrill and fear of wondering who will be our next loved ones. No matter what your experience, it is a highly emotional time, one that holds a solid place in our memory. Stop for a minute, can you remember how you felt the day you left home?

When I think back to leaving home, my memories of traveling to college are so vivid it could have happened last month, instead of 21 years ago. I was leaving my safe small town of Iowa where I knew the names of most kids at my school, and driving 12 hours west to move into my dorm at Colorado State University. Alone. I was so excited I could hardly stand it. And I was so nervous I hadn’t slept in a week. After the sting of the emotional good-byes had eased, my mind raced with the possibilities of what lie ahead. What would this new chapter of life look like? I realized that this stretch of 780 miles was the space in between. The space between my old life, and my new. It felt like I had a lot to figure out in between these 2 lives. About 4 hours into the drive, a song came on the radio that hit me like a slap in the face. Alanis Morissette’s “All I Really Want.” This was a song like nothing I’d ever heard before. Her strong, powerful, angry voice hit and echoed my desire to be an independent, strong, smart woman. Thankfully the radio DJ announced the singer’s name after the song, and I put my blinker on to exit into Omaha and found my way to the nearest Best Buy to buy the Jagged Little Pill album.


I listened to that album for the remained of the drive, instead of listening to the mixed taped I had made specifically for this road trip. Alanis brought my journey of the space in between to a whole new level. The raw emotional songs helped me find words to match how I felt. The music felt like such a strong, clear expression of my overwhelming feelings. By the time I pulled up to my new home I had worked through the nerves, and I felt calm and confident.

Whenever I hear a song from Jagged Little Pill, I am overcome with the feelings I had while listening to it during that life changing road trip. I can still feel the wind raging through the car with the windows down, I can smell the heat from the highway and the scent from the farms I raced past. (Yes, even the unpleasant farm smells hold a dear place in my heart). My heart still explodes a little and I can feel the hope and new-found freedom my little 18 year old self felt. I think Alanis Morissette was a perfect match for this developmental leap. It was the right song, right singer, the right time.

Musical nostalgia is a pretty cool thing. There has been some amazing research on music, memory, and the brain. It turns out music experiences make neural connections during the developmental years which basically means footprints are left in our brain that bind experiences, music, and emotion together. When songs that have left this footprint in the brain are heard, the brain can be seen releasing all the chemicals that make us feel the way we felt when we heard it a long time ago. Having a release of all these feel good chemicals like dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin while thinking of that special moment is like being transported back in time and we feel it all again.

Music can take us back and help us relive a moment, feel the feeling.

Music memories from adolescents are the most powerful memories of all. Adolescence is when our hormones are raging, and everything feels so intense. That intensity we felt then was remembered by our brain, so when music from those years come on our brain reacts accordingly.   I love when a song comes on and BAM! I am flooded with the feelings of those times I am nostalgic for. I can’t hear John Cougar Mellencamp’s “Jack and Diane” without feeling like I am 16 years old again, and the pure joy of being in a car full of my best girl friends singing at the top of our lungs. Neil Diamond’s “Coming to America” will forever remind me of the first time I was allowed to stay home along during a Saturday afternoon, and I played that song on my record player as loud as it would go, and danced in my Underoos until I was dripping sweat because no one was watching. Most of my moments of new-found independence were marked by music, and I am thankful to be able to relive the emotion of the memory through song.

Think back, what were your major moments that are forever tied to a song? Was there a song playing during your first kiss, first plane ride? A song from an iconic party or spring break you will never forget? Was there a song that was always played at practice that defines a certain season? A special performance of a song at graduation or an awards ceremony? Or maybe a song takes you back to a certain year, or season. The song of summer that when you hear it gives you a surge of happiness, remembering carefree summer of long ago.

As I turn on the radio today, I wonder, what song will be hitting the ears and hearts of the kids packing up and leaving home for the first time? Will they have the luck of getting the right song at the right moment, to help them feel grounded, strong, passionate? I hope so. And I hope that musical nostalgia continues to inspire song writers to create the all important pieces that will be the hallmark of memories.




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