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  • Writer's pictureDoug Weiss

Soundtracks

Scientists have named the phenomenon of involuntary memory after the author Marcel Proust who first coined the term in his novel, In search of Lost Time. The particular trigger for Proust’s repressed recall of his childhood was the smell of a madeleine, but the phenomenon is not limited to smell alone. Taste and sound can also serve to unlock our memories and the powerful emotions behind them.


Music in particular has clear associative as well as emotional context. Watch any compelling drama in the movies or on Television without its accompanying soundtrack and note how diminished the feelings it evokes. Not only does the music offer cues to the action; impending danger, romantic engagement, or comic relief for example, but tempo and tone act as an emotional metronome. A few bars of the relentless theme from Jaws, instantly foreshadow an ominous presence even if one has never seen the movie, while a lyrical passage from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons or Pachelbel’s Canon in D Major set an energetic, serene or romantic mood. Clearly we need not have heard a passage in our past or associated it with a visual scene to feel its intent, that is the gift of the composer.


Think about the blues or progressive jazz. Both convey a distinct emotional state of being even without accompanying lyrics, and in the same way liturgical music may soar with ‘heavenly’ evocation or spiral into foreboding darkness. Musical storytelling is as old as mankind and holds the power to unleash a universal emotional refrain. It's no surprise then that our memories are so often marked by the music we listened to, in the day, the soundtracks of our lives. A 90’s era TV show, Ally McBeal, famously explored the idea substituting popular music of the recent past for characters’ inner thoughts, even playing on the idea of personal soundtracks.


Have you ever observed yourself while driving and listening to a favorite piece of music? Some years ago, when I was commuting daily on a stretch of highway notorious for daily accidents, I consciously chose to listen to classical music. It rendered an air of calm amidst the sometimes chaotic and frenzied traffic around me. On my return home in the evening after the rush hour had passed, I opted for something with a bit more energy and my trip seemed just a little less dreary, especially in the dark of Winter.


Music accompanies me everywhere thanks to technology. No sooner do I sit down on the rowing machine at the gym than I pop in my ear buds and select my play list. For the next half hour I listen to music I curated, each distinctive for the steady tempo that allows me to zone out, close my eyes and be assured I will maintain a constant level of effort. My thoughts on the other hand ramble, flitting from one memory to another, from one emotion to the next. The serendipity of this randomized playlist suits my workout, while at other times, more contemplative in nature I will listen to intensely rhythmic Flamenco inspired music or Opera.


My musical tastes are, in a word, generous, or perhaps undisciplined might be closer to the truth. I am not a musician, despite many attempts to learn an instrument as a child. The closest I came was a dreadful rendition of Love Me Tender on the trumpet. Thankfully that interlude was brief. I did sing in a choir for several years, supported by a talented group of basses and baritones who helped me avoid the flats and sharps but I was never destined to sing a capella. Despite these musical sojourns I have managed to remain challenged, at least when it comes to creating music.


Thankfully, the ability to enjoy music, to allow it to place us in a mood or place and time is not limited to musicians. Some years ago there was a clip making the rounds of the internet that perfectly illustrated this universality. A tuxedoed musician appears in a town square in a European city. He carries a bass and begins to play the opening chords of Ode an die Freude (The Ode to Joy). Curious bystanders stop and gather around him. In moments he is joined by a violist, then several violinists, trumpet, trombone and French horn players, a kettle drummer, and finally a chorus. At this point the crowd has swelled in size and spontaneously many begin to join the chorus. They are of every age and inclination, but it is apparent that they are transported by the music even if it is only faintly familiar.


No doubt, those few moments in the town square will linger in the memories of the crowd, and I would wager they were lifted up out of themselves each recalling or storing a memory of the day. My favorites are the little children who delight in leading this orchestral event. They need not know the composer or his work, but all recognize his intent; a soaring celebration of human triumph.


If you would like to see this wonderful clip, I have appended a link below. I hope you enjoy it.

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