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  • Dayna Sharp, LCSW

The Music of Memories

Did you ever hear a song on the radio, and immediately feel as if you've been taken back to another time of your life? Most of us have had this experience, and it's how we know, intuitively, that music and memory are deeply related.


Research has shown that emotion and learning are connected. That is when we feel something, we're more likely to hold on to it. Think about the songs that really take you back in time. They're likely associated with emotional memories--probably memories of friends, romantic interests--relationships. Alternatively, the music and/or lyrics may have led you to think about and feel a longing for a relationship, which emotionally speaking, is equally powerful.


So that's likely why when we hear certain music, we can feel overcome with memories of the past--because it evokes a feeling in us. A feeling from another time.


Type of Memory


Human beings have different kinds of memory--explicit and implicit. Explicit memory is the kind of memory that allows us to remember facts. "Where did I live in 1997?", "What was my 3rd grade teacher's name?", "What are the lyrics to this song?". These are all examples of explicit memory. "Autobiographical memory" also comes under this category of memory. And as you might guess, music plays a role here. We might remember a "soundtrack" of certain times in our past. When we do, we are using our explicit memory.


But music is also connected to our implicit memory, which is the memory that is automatic, that we're not necessarily aware of. It's the kind of memory that allows us to know "how". For example, when we get into a car, we don't usually think "Put in key, turn key, put foot on the brake, put car into reverse, put foot on accelerator...", etc. We already know how, thanks to our implicit memory. We don't have to think about it, or recall our explicit memory. We already, implicitly know. Implicit memory also drives our relational memory, that is, how to be in relationships. For more on this, read my post: Healing from Developmental Trauma


Importantly, implicit memory can also be thought of as the "emotional undercurrent" of our lives, of who we are, of how we "do" relationships with ourselves and others. Have you ever said one thing, but felt another? That's your emotional undercurrent. Have you ever thought one way about another person, but felt another? That too is your emotional undercurrent. Have you ever had what seems to have been a pretty good day, but somehow still felt sad? That just might be your emotional undercurrent.


A Musical Example


Have you ever heard the song "Memories" by Maroon 5? This is a contemporary pop song about remembering people the singer has lost during his lifetime. He is singing about explicit memory--the facts of his losses.


But there's something deeper here. There's an undercurrent that we're probably not even aware of. Something from the past, that deeply affects the experience of this contemporary song. Have you ever heard this piece?



This is just like the human experience! We're aware of, we talk about our daily experience. But there's always music underneath. And that music gives our experiences feeling.


Music, Memories and Therapy


I'm not a music therapist. I don't listen to or make music with my clients. But I do tune in to the music underneath the words. I help my clients better understand the ways in which the past, the emotional undercurrent, the music of memories shape their experiences, what they know and how they relate, in the present. I find Maroon 5's reconstruction of the Pachelbel's Canon in D to be beautiful. But when the music of our past, our emotional undercurrent, automatically intrudes into our present, it doesn't lead to such a wonderful outcome. Frankly, it can cause significant pain, and we might feel stuck, without knowing why. Therapy can help by illuminating the music underneath, the undercurrent from your past, and while the tune may always live somewhere in your implicit memory, quietly sometimes, louder at others, a great therapy can give you the freedom to compose a new song that you choose for your present.


For more on Music and Memories, read this: Culture: Why Does Music Evoke Memories?

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