Social Songs – The power of music to bring back memories and emotions
I was just washing the dishes. It’s something I do every day and most times I do it, I’ll put some music on and my choice on this day was a playlist of James Bond theme songs. But then one of them came on and I wasn’t washing the dishes anymore, I was transported almost three decades into the past and reliving the feelings and emotions from one of the saddest times of my life.
The song was Sheena Easton’s theme from For Your Eyes Only. It’s not my favourite Bond song. It’s probably not even Sheena Easton’s favourite Bond song, but it will forever be tied into some strong emotions for me.
I was really close with my maternal grandfather (I called him Grandpop) and one of our favourite things to do was watch films, particularly Bond films. He died when I was 13 and one of the most treasured things I inherited from him was a cassette of Bond themes. I listened to it religiously and the song that most connected with my emotions at the time was the slightly mournful sounding For Your Eyes Only.
So even all these years later, that song still takes me back to those feelings I had at that age after losing my Grandpop, my friend and my movie buddy. That’s the power that music has always had for me. Songs can take me back to past experiences better than any time machine or even photographs, whether it was a great holiday, a magical Christmas or times when I was sad, or scared or lonely.
This power that music has recently came up while I was talking to our clients Mental Health Motorbike. Their work around mental health within the biker community involves finding ways to get people to open up about their emotions and one hugely successful way they have achieved this is through music.
They created a Spotify playlist and encouraged members of their community to add their own special songs to it along with a story about what it meant to them. It’s been a really popular way to get conversations flowing, sharing memories, music and emotions. But what is it about music that has this effect on us?
Memories are made of this
According to autobiographical memory expert David C. Rubin, music has been an important mnemonic device for thousands of years, with stories passed down through generations through chanting or singing. We still do that in early years education today, teaching children through songs (how else could you learn the alphabet?).
It works because the rhythms, rhymes, alliteration and structure of songs give our hippocampus and frontal cortex the right cues to help unlock information. And indeed memories, with the emotional connection we have with certain songs coming because they evoke sensory memories from our implicit memory systems, which are more based in our subconscious.
That’s one reason why music can be such a powerful tool for working with people who have dementia or have suffered traumatic brain injuries, because songs have these implicit connections in their brains with places they’ve been to, people they’ve been with and experiences they have had.
Inspired by the success of the Mental Health Motorbike playlist and my own connection with music and memories, I asked my colleagues at Social for their examples of songs that are important to them. We’ve created our own Social Songs playlist which you can stream here, and here are the stories behind the songs:
My song is Blackpool Belle by Houghton Weavers. There are three reasons I’ve picked this. Firstly, it’s a traditional northern banger! Secondly, it stirs up lots of fun memories from being at various family celebrations when I was a kid – my Gran and Grandad were proud working class Irish immigrants and at big family get-togethers, whether at their home or in a pub or social club, I remember (very well) this tune, along with various other folk and pub-friendly classics such as the Wild Rover.
The final reason I’ve picked this is because it makes me think of two awesome octogenerians from Bolton who joined one of my Rail Ale tours on the East Lancashire Railway a few years back. On the final leg of the journey, I played some songs through a Bluetooth speaker which they clearly thought was witchcraft. They started tapping their feet and asking me what other songs I had ‘in my collection’ – Blackpool Belle was requested and when it started playing, they couldn’t believe it. Next minute they were both singing along and bringing smiles to the carriage in a moment of sheer joy.
It’s a song called Buranko by a Japanese band called Do As Infinity, which was a really popular song when I was living in Japan from 2003-2005. I never understood (and still don’t) the lyrics and it’s not really my kind of music (I’m more of an indie rock fan), but it played constantly in shops at the time, and was much loved by my teenage students who would listen to it almost non-stop over lunchtime.
As a result it became the informal soundtrack to my time in Japan, which was probably the most pivotal experience of my life so far – I met my husband there and it’s where I feel I finally became confident in my own, then-24 year old skin.
There’s a Japanese word, “natsukashii” which roughly translates as “nostalgic” in English, but with a stronger tinge of sadness and introspection than the Western concept of nostalgia, which has become so commercialised in recent years. Whenever I hear this song, I feel very “natsukashii” – simultaneously transported back to a very happy time in my life, sad that time is now many years in the past, homesick for a place to which I still feel a very strong attachment, and grateful for the experiences I had there and everything Japan gave me.
The song Baar Baar Din Yeh Aaye is the one for me. It’s from a classic Bollywood movie called Farz (released in 1967) and it’s sung by one of my dad’s favourite singers, the legendary Mohammed Rafi – considered one of the greatest Indian singers of his time. And this particular song is one that my dad has sung to me and my siblings, and now sings to his grandchildren on their birthdays, changing the lyrics to fit our names.
A few lines of the lyrics roughly translate as: “May these days return time and time again, may my heart sing like this again and again; May you live a thousand years, that is my wish; Happy Birthday to you…” This song always reminds me of my wonderful dad – if only he could live to a 1,000 years!
My song would be Red Red Wine by UB40. As a child my mum would play music every Sunday afternoon without fail. Red Red Wine (and Chariots of Fire?!) would always be on the playlist. It’s probably one of my earliest childhood memories, watching her singing and dancing whilst she was cooking. Every time I hear it, it brings a smile to my face. In fact, she played it so much that when I was around 4 years old, I stood up in church and started singing “My mummy loves red, red wine!” to her horror.
My song is Let’s Stay Together by Al Green. My partner Ollie has been out of the country for six months, but this is the song he asked me to marry him to before he left in April. I can’t actively listen to it at the moment, but when it comes on the radio, it’s a lovely reminder of that moment for us.
My song is (I Don’t Know Why) But I Do by Clarence ‘Frogman’ Henry. My nanna is the most special person in my life and this was her and my Grandad’s “song”. We sadly lost my Grandad almost twenty years ago – for her, this song has always been an instant link to him and whenever it’s played you can almost see directly into my Nanna’s brain as she takes a trip down memory lane.
For me, it instantly reminds me of incredibly happy times with my Nanna – listening to it with her in her kitchen, dancing with her to it at family weddings and blasting it in the car when we go on days out together. It’s a largely unknown song but recently featured on an Expedia advert and made me smile every time it came on. I will forever treasure this song because it will always remind me of her!
My song is Percy Sledge’s When A Man Loves A Woman. This is because my dad was a session musician in the 70s and toured with Percy Sledge amongst other artists of the day. When the song starts he always used to say when I was little, “That’s your daddy playing the Hammond organ.”
My song is Halo by Beyonce. We played this at one of my best friend’s memorials after she committed suicide in Australia 12 years ago. I always think of her when I hear that song and believe she is our Halo looking over us.
My songs are Caravan of Love by The Housemartins and Fairytale Of New York by The Pogues and Kirsty MacColl. My mum died of cancer in December 2016. It was all very sudden, after a whole raft of different medical tests and investigations she was finally diagnosed with cancer of the oesophagus which had spread into her lymph nodes.
She was admitted to hospital the next day and sadly didn’t get to come home. We had 10 precious days with her at the hospital before she died. During this time, she got to see the majority of her family. However, me, my dad and her sister were with her all this time and for her final days which were spent talking to her and playing many of her and our favourite songs.
As Christmas was approaching she had always sung along and loved The Fairy Tale of New York and Caravan of Love was a favourite because she and my dad (and me while I was a child) would always holiday in their caravan.
We used to play her these songs and belt out the lyrics in the hope that she would hear them and be filled with happy memories. The hospital were very accommodating. In the immediate aftermath of her death, I found it really difficult to listen to these songs and would cry every time they came on the radio. But now five years on, when I hear these songs they just fill me with happy memories of my mum.