I’ve heard it said that the essence of music is to make people enjoy patterns without realizing it. As far as I can tell, this is true. I can’t grasp music, whether I hear it, see a sheet of notes or play Guitar Hero. It’s beyond me, but I like to listen.
As fans of ’80s sci-fi/comedies know, music can do something else: let you time travel. Not literally, I mean, but the effect can be just as real as if it were.
As it’s been explained to me, memories are information stored in the brain after initial perception and sensation stops. You dig things out now and again, then stick them back where they were, in effect re-remembering them. Because there’s so much possible info to remember and it gets corrupted each time, very little of what we remember is ever (factually) truly accurate.
Some things act as little time-capsules of memory, however. Smell is one. Taste, another. But music is the most common, and also the one most associated with time. For whatever reason, it isn’t just the pattern of notes that’s preserved but everything experienced at the time of the memory’s source – sights, places, insignificant details but especially state of mind. It could be argued these are all the experience of self we have.
It seems to me people are always most fond and forlorn when they remember their youth. Always a joyous time of energy and motion and carefree days. It’s also a time when everything new is wonderful and everything that came before is old and should be torn down to make way for the now. If the young were left to themselves, we’d probably have no surviving monuments or even traditions.
In few things is newness more important than music. More so even than fashion, what marks an era is what’s playing in the background. It may not be an exaggeration to say that since the 1920s, the timeline has had a soundtrack, at least in America.
When I listen to System of a Down’s self-titled album, I skip back on my timeline until I’m back in my best friend’s red pickup, driving some place for lunch. My hand is out his rolled-down win-dow dipping up and down in the wind, I’m tired, and I’m hoping the teacher will put off the test another day as she did the day before. I’ve no pressing concerns except where we should eat and whether we’ll beat the Permian lunch rush when we get there.
Because it’s behind us, we’re both impossibly far from high school, but when that CD starts, or Rage Against the Machine’s The Battle of Los Angeles or The Bloodhound Gang’s Hooray for Boobies, I’m right there again, in a certain place, even on a particular road again. We’re traveling down 52nd and Grandview. There’s a can of gasoline in his truckbed with a shovel and pair of hoes be-sides it. In between us are two pairs of work gloves and 44 oz. Town & Country cups filled with Dr Pepper. And I’ll never be there again except when I hear, “Boys-n-the-Hood” as covered by Dynamite Hack. But I am there when I hear it.
It extends to music that I didn’t actively listen to but was just on the radio like Sisqo’s “Thong Song” or some of the Backstreet Boys’ music. All of a sudden I could swear I’m back in standard attire needing a ride home after football practice outside the east wing of Bonham.
These particulars all only apply to me and those near my age. To most of you it’s utterly incomprehensible nonsense. But it is real to me, as real as anything that I experience now.
For you it may be Selena; Duran Duran; Earth, Wind & Fire; Iron Butterfly; Buddy Holly; or Count Basie.
And when you hear it, you find yourself melted out of the here and now, transported back to a time and place when things were different and yourself also, and you’re there with your whole generation until you bring yourself back or the music ends.