I’ve never known much about music.
I am the oldest child, so I had no older siblings playing what was popular when I was young. My mother listened to public radio in the morning. My dad played Bach on the piano every Sunday after we got home from church. My parents sang at both services in the church choir, so Mom would make something quick when we got home, often a Swanson pot pie. I somehow got “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” mixed up in my head with pot pies, and I think of Bach’s masterpiece as “The Pot Pie Song” to this day.
By the time I was a teenager, I was already behind the curve. I wasn’t popular enough to be invited places where I’d hear new music. I still have not caught up.
But, in my defense, I enjoy listening to new musicians and new music. My husband, Peter, and I go to concerts in the park all summer and hear all sorts of music. Some of it we love. Some of it we’re not so sure about. Sometimes Peter says, “You’re looking tired. You want to go home?” And I’ll say, “Yeah, maybe so.”
We pack up our folding chairs and head home, still listening to the music in the distance. But most of it I like.
Last winter, I went to a concert performed by an old high school friend. I attended with two other old friends and found myself surrounded by people I’d known in high school and hadn’t seen since. They were all a lot older than I remembered them—or imagined them—to be. But it was fun to be with people who knew all the words to all the songs. I thought about what a powerful thing that was, to have such a strong shared memory with a room full of people.
“Isn’t it weird,” my friend Andy said, “how you can remember exactly where you were when you first heard a song?”
“And exactly how you felt and who you were thinking about?” my friend Clay added. His girlfriend, Lou, nodded knowingly and rolled her eyes. I wondered what she was remembering.
“And then you stop hearing the song completely!” Andy said.
“There is some music I don’t need to listen to anymore,” Clay agreed. “It’s burned into my brain.”
I’m not sure if I remember the first time I heard most of the songs I know. But I remember songs that helped me when I was struggling with emotions that seemed too big to handle on my own. Songs tided me over. They gave voice to feelings that were either too powerful or too painful to experience in silence. Songs grounded me when I felt I might fly away or explode. Songs made sense of things, even if I couldn’t explain in words what I learned from them.
They say that music resides in a different part of our brains than other memories do. Alzheimer patients who no longer remember their families can still play the piano. Musicians performing for the elderly see their faces come to life when they hear songs from their youth. Music buries itself deep within us. When we hear a familiar refrain, we feel the emotion associated with it before we even remember the tune.
The concert finished. The crowd demanded an encore. The musicians complied. The audience erupted in cheers and sang along with the last song.
I thought about what Clay said about the music being burned into his brain. In a literal sense, it was likely true.
Till next time,