Music is a powerful thing, and its effect on the brain has been studied extensively. It’s easy to associate some songs with life experiences, connecting romantic songs to a romantic partner, singalong-worthy songs to road trips, and even songs with a location to that location. But music is powerful enough to transcend these associations, making some music-life connections stranger than ever. Here are a few of those associations.
“I Try” by Macy Gray: When I was a kid, I used my tape player to record my favorite songs on the radio, then carry the tape and my tape player everywhere to listen to those songs. By March 2000, “I Try” was constantly playing on the radio and I had adopted the song as a favorite. It was also spelling bee season, and March meant competing at the regional bee for a chance to go to the national bee in Washington, DC. Despite all my best efforts, I placed fifth and left very upset because of the easy word I missed. Back in the car, I drowned myself in the music instead of talking to my parents. The first song to play? “I Try”. And I did try, even tried my hardest. And that’s all I can do.
The Dresden Dolls’ self-titled album: This one always gets an interesting reaction when I explain the association with number theory, a field of math that’s about special numbers like primes and perfect numbers. But toward the end of that semester, I was struggling. We were moving quickly to complete the course material and I didn’t understand a lot of the material that was on the third and final test before the final exam. Elliptic curves, cryptography, all fascinating materials, all reviewed so quickly that I didn’t understand it the first time or the second time or even the third time. Number theory was the last of my exams that semester, and I put all my extra energy into studying for that exam, usually with some kind of music in the background. One album that stands out was the Dresden Dolls’ self-titled album. Think dark cabaret with some rock mixed in–lots of loud music designed to strike you right in the heart and brain. And strike me in the heart and brain it did–every time I cracked open my number theory notes, “Coin-Operated Boy” played in my head even when I was listening to something more soothing that I don’t remember now. When I opened the envelope containing the number theory final exam, “Girl Anachronism” played in my head, It stayed there through the exam, making my effort at concentrating a difficult one. I still made an A- in the class. Thank you, past self.
“Don’t Stop Believing” by Journey: My last semester of college had finally arrived. Despite my possibly-poor life choice of taking a course overload and finishing a second major, the world economy crashing left and right with no end in sight, and a breakup with a guy I had been dating for almost a year, I was still determined to end college on a high note. The course load meant a lot of time at my library study carrel. Stack two, next to the literature and humanities books I was using for my French thesis. Books and piles of papers everywhere around the carrel, making me thank any gods out there that this was my reserved carrel. And of course wifi. Thanks to the wifi, I spent a lot of time listening to various Pandora stations while studying, often shuffling all my Pandora stations for maximum shuffle effect. “Don’t Stop Believing” was one of those songs that came up regularly. And if there was one thing I was determined to do, it was to never stop believing in what I could do. Sure, I was practically living in the library, trying not to cry at the drop of a hat. (I did nearly cry in front of my math advisor once a few weeks after that breakup, but that’s neither here nor there.) And sure, I was honestly not sure how to make it through the end of the semester without some voodoo and a few more hours in a day. Because when “Don’t Stop Believing” came on, none of that mattered. I was going to get through somehow. Streetlights, people. This song also led to my longest NaNo novel to date–my third 2010 NaNo novel, which pushed my total word count over 300k. (Semirelated: Another song that came up regularly was A Fine Frenzy’s “Almost Lover”, which was definitely appropriate for the time.)
“The Boys of Summer” by Don Henley: I visited San Francisco for the first time in November 2011. It was the trip of a lifetime: visiting NaNoWriMo HQ, meeting Wrimos from all over the world… oh yeah, and exploring this brand new city, even if I only had the money to stay for a weekend. I stayed in a hostel near Union Square and spent Sunday morning wandering around the area near Union Square. The ice skating rink had been set up. If I had the money to spare, I might have gone ice skating. I didn’t have the money, so I leaned on a railing outside the skating rink and lost myself in thought for awhile while “The Boys of Summer” played. Did I have to go back to Georgia? Couldn’t I just stay in San Francisco forever, stay with my new Night of Writing Dangerously friends and NaNoWriMo people, stay in this part of the world where tech ads were normal and the weather was perfect, if a little drizzly later in the afternoon? All those years of noveling and getting to know other writers and helping out newbies and feeling like I was part of something that mattered, all that was building up to a trip home. And by that point, nothing was stopping the tears. My seat on the flight back to Atlanta included a radio station. I plugged in my headphones and chose an 80s station. The song was nearly over, but the next song started up immediately. As “The Boys of Summer” played and the plane prepared for takeoff, I looked out the window and sobbed my eyes out. Sometimes music leaves a trail to your heart, and sometimes it helps you find the heart you left behind. This time it did both.