Music and Memory

“Music speaks louder than words.
It’s the only thing that the whole world listens to.
Music speaks louder than words;
When you sing, people understand.”
 – Peter, Paul & Mary



Music connects us. It lets us communicate across age differences and language barriers. While it is often the lyrics we respond to, even without the words the music is still a bridge. (Start humming the “Ode to Joy,” and someone will inevitably join you.) More than that though, music is a direct tap into memories.

I am a baby, my thoughts not yet expressible to others, but I hear my grandmother singing me a lullaby, and I coo along with her until I fall asleep. “Lula, lula, lula, lula baby. Do you want the stars to play with?”

I am a toddler having a cranky day as my mother and I are driving somewhere in her ancient white duster. She turns on the radio and within minutes I’m no longer crying and kicking but singing along with my mom and the music: “I had some dreams. They were clouds in my coffee, clouds in my coffee….” I didn’t understand the whole song, but the idea of pictures forming in the eddies of cream in my mother’s coffee mug captured my young imagination. To this day, that remains my favorite phrase from  “You’re So Vain.”

I’m nine and visiting my grandparents for the summer. My grandmother spent the morning humming and crooning to her plants, but suddenly my grandfather bursts out with a random chorus of “Sweet Adeline.” Grandma and I are entranced: we so rarely heard him sing.

I’m in my early twenties and cooking something in my mother’s kitchen. She and my stepfather are away for their anniversary, and I’m staying in their house taking care of my grandmother. A widow, now, she’s lost enough of her cognitive skills that we have to write the day and date and basic schedule for the day on a whiteboard. But when I start singing one of her favorite songs, “Hello Dolly,” my grandmother starts to sing with me, never missing a word. (Some years later, we will use this song as the processional music for her funeral.)

I’m a few years older, and my husband and I are spending Christmas with my parents in Baja California Sur, where they’ve retired. A mixed group of American ex-pats, locals, and people from other countries who are doing post-docs at the science institute where my stepfather works (his retirement job is editing the English-language papers before they’re submitted to journals) are gathered to share a meal, and someone brings out a guitar. We don’t all speak the same language, but we all know “Silent Night” and we sing it in a mixture of Spanish, English, French, and German. When we tire of Christmas carols, we move on to Beatles tunes  – because everyone knows the Beatles. What began as a slightly awkward evening ends in riotous laughter and new friendships formed.

So many memories of my grandparents are linked to music – singing around the piano at parties, singing in the car on trips (with or without the radio), having lullabies sung to me as a child – I’m fortunate that every song we shared has a deeper memory attached.

Just as people who stutter are often encouraged to sing to help their speech flow more freely, singing or playing music makes memories flow and allows conversations to happen more easily. When an elderly relative or someone with cognitive impairment can’t remember or can’t find words to speak, playing music or singing together can help the memories flow. Singing a favorite “oldie” like Elvis’s “Love me Tender” might trigger memories of first loves while playing classical pieces might spark conversations about anything from weddings to concerts.

Here’s one more memory: It’s my thirtieth birthday and I’m sitting in a chair at the Los Gatos Mountain Winery at a benefit concert where the folk group Peter, Paul & Mary are performing. Almost everyone my age is there with an older relative – a parent or grandparent – likely the person who introduced them to folk music in the first place. I was supposed to be there with my mother, but she’s just moved to Mexico so I’m with my husband instead. The man in front of me, there with his adult daughter, is very tall, and I’m very short. Every time I shift to try and look to his side, he shifts also. I’m beginning to become annoyed, but then Peter Yarrow introduces the group’s iconic song, “Puff the Magic Dragon,” and invites the audience to sing along. At one point the man in front of me turns his head, and I see tears rolling down his cheek. Instantly, I’m no longer annoyed. How can you be annoyed at an old man who cries during “Puff?” At the end of the concert, his daughter tells me she was making him move so I could see, but the timing was off. I tell her it’s okay because I could still hear.

“Music speaks louder than words.
When you sing, people understand.”

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