Musical Therapy

Have you ever been surprised by a song on the radio that suddenly transports you back to another time or place? It might remind you of a person or a vacation. It might remind you of a relationship or your high school prom. It might remind you of a fight you had with your best friend when you were 8 or the first time you ever kissed someone.

For example, when I listen to Dave Matthews Band’s Before These Crowded Streets album, I’m 11 years old sitting in my dad’s truck and reading Star Wars novels. No kidding. I just looked up “Star Wars novels” on Google to make sure I was remembering correctly, and a Wikipedia page led me to the cover art and I knew instantly that those were the books I was reading around the time my sister and I moved to Texas to live with our father after our parents’ divorce. I can’t tell you anything about the plot but I can feel the pages turn beneath my fingers and I can smell that awesome book smell.

So mysterious.

I frequently listen to late ’90s and early ’00s popular music. It is my favorite music. It transports me to a simpler time. As an added bonus, some of it reminds me of a friend who is now gone. Hearing music we listened to together as children takes me back to those moments when life was as simple as riding bikes and getting ice cream. Sometimes when I listen to this music, I remember the moment my childhood best friend decided that our favorite bands were no longer cool, and I remember my subsequent decision that I still liked those bands so… whatever, duh.

Added note: Listening to boy band hits as an adult is hard. I want to shake the Backstreet Boys. Stop pressuring this girl into dating you, omg, this is not romantic. “I deserve a try honey, just once, give me a chance and I’ll prove this all wrong.” I love you BSB but you need to go think about your choices.

1999. A simpler time.

June 26, 2006 was my first date ever, so I’m fast approaching 10 years of relationship history and all assorted musical/emotional connections. I was really into Journey during the summer before college when I started dating my first boyfriend, so certain songs remind me of that time. Not to mention we danced to “Faithfully” at our wedding and I still can’t listen to it without being there in my brain. Fast forward to another relationship, when I had found Steven Page’s first solo album after his split from Barenaked Ladies at a closing Borders bookstore. I was playing it in the car and trying to listen to the lyrics, and this guy I was dating would not stop talking over the music. So now when I listen to it, I still sometimes feel annoyed at this man I have not seen in years.

The soundtrack of my divorce, a mix of Pink and Ingrid Michaelson, is still hard to jam to in my car without feeling all bothered and angry and hurt. The soundtrack of the early days of my relationship with Nearly-Mr.-Me transports me to summertime and the fluttery butterflies of early love. (Did I mention I’m engaged? Yeah. Totally getting married!)

Good or bad, music is strongly tied to memory. In fact, music has been used in clinical trials to help people with memory loss recover some of their memories. Such memories are called “music-evoked autobiographical memories” (MEAMs) and are seen to activate in fMRI scans when the person is exposed to familiar music. This research has great implications for treatment of memory loss from brain injuries and even Alzheimer’s disease. See this article from Psychology Today for more info.

This excerpt from the article is particularly interesting to me as it relates to emotional healing unrelated to memory loss:

“Interestingly, it appears that if you haven’t heard a song in years, the neural tapestry representing that song stays purer and the song will evoke stronger specific memories of a time and place from your past. The memories linked to overplayed songs can become diluted because the neural network is constantly being updated.”

It took me a couple years after my divorce before I could begin to listen to certain songs again. The songs I played on repeat as self-empowering mantras took on the new form of being divorce songs. Whenever I hear Pink’s “So What,” or Ingrid Michaelson’s “Once Was Love,” I can recall vividly the ending days of my first marriage. But as time goes on and I listen to the songs in new contexts, those memories fade. Apparently I’m diluting the neural pathways connecting those particular memories to those particular songs. Not mad.

I would hypothesize (in the un-scientific way a blogger can hypothesize) that survivors of emotional traumas, or even physical traumas, could use music as a way to recreate neural pathways in the brain to disassociate triggering music from the traumatic memory. I can’t speak to clinically-diagnosed depression, anxiety, and other mood disorders because I am not a doctor, but people with a habit of negative self-talk or certain anxiety triggers may be able to use music to help re-wire their own negative patterns.

What a lovely way we might be able to relieve ourselves of emotional burdens.

If you need me, I’ll be having a ’90s dance party. Later, gators.

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