The Soundtrack of Our Lives: How Music and Memory Intertwine

Reading: The Soundtrack of Our Lives: How Music and Memory Intertwine

Mental Health

The Soundtrack of Our Lives: How Music and Memory Intertwine

Music has the power to transport us back to pivotal moments in our lives. The perfect playlist can put you right back on track

By Dawn Colossi

Many studies (like this one) have shown that music can affect the structure of the brain, enhance your mood, reduce stress, tame the savage beast. In fact, music therapy has shown promise as a safe and supportive environment for healing trauma and building resilience while decreasing anxiety levels. Research shows that music can positively influence emotions, which is why some health care professionals play music at the bedside to help people who are recovering or in pain.

What really struck a chord with me was how music and memory intertwine and how music has the power to transport you back to pivotal moments in your life — like a first kiss (mine was in 5th grade at a boy/girl party and “My Sharona” was playing in the background) or a first breakup (I listened to “I Miss You” on repeat for 48 hours until my mother threatened to throw my stereo out the window!) or the first dance at your wedding (ours was “Can’t help Falling in Love”).

I love when a particular song transports me right back to one of those moments on a relatively average day and conjures up random memories along with the feelings that go along with them. It’s like a flashback scene in a movie; and, if you think about it, those songs are really like the soundtrack of your life.

The Soundtrack of My Life
One of my earliest memories was when I was only about 2 years old. I know this because we still lived in Brooklyn, New York (we moved to New Jersey when I was 2.5 years old). I was with my dad in our gray Oldsmobile. No seatbelt, front seat (it was the ’60s!) and on the radio, Jim Nabors was belting out “Life is a Cabaret, Old Chum” and my father was right there with him. The flashback that plays in my head is looking at my dad with his sideburns, big smile, and bellowing. I remember feeling so happy and excited just being next to him in that car. I get similar flashes of being in our blue wood-paneled station wagon, in the backseat with my brother and sister singing “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown” — a song that has made it onto my personal playlist since my first iPod 40-something years later.  

The song “Magic” by the Scottish band Pilot brings me back to the ’70s and my neighbor’s backyard on the day my friend Peter taught me how to dive into the deep end. My mother and his were in plastic lounge chairs next to their brand new in-ground pool — only the second in the neighborhood! He taught me how to dive off the diving board using the chorus of that sound: woo (first step) hoo (second step) hoo (third step) it’s (point hands over head) ma- (jump up) gic (point down and dive in). Then I’d get out of the pool as quickly as I could to try again before the next chorus. And when the song ended, I just sang it in my head over and over as I perfected my dive that day feeling very proud, capable, and accomplished.

I remember feeling very grown up — though, I was only about 6 years old — whenever I heard “The Entertainer” because my mother was taking only me — not my younger brother and sister — to a very rare after-dinner trip to a mall, which was about a half hour away from home and a very big deal, to go school clothes shopping for 1st grade. This outing was so rare then and that’s what made it so very special, and memorable. 

I wonder if I’d have such vivid early memories if the songs didn’t connect me to them?

Like when, as a middle schooler, I walked alone 30 minutes to meet my new friend, an 8th grader when I was only in 7th grade, at a pizza parlor. No adults, just us. I even had my babysitting money in my pocket. Bonnie Tyler’s “Total Eclipse of the Heart” was playing when I walked into that pizza place feeling very independent, free, and so empowered. I’ll never forget that feeling. It was a first taste of, and a first step toward, independence. 

I was 13 years old when I heard Bruce Springsteen for the very first time. I was in the 8th grade and sleeping over at my friend Christeen’s house and the Born to Run album was blasting out of her high-school-aged brother’s room. I remember falling more and more in love with Bruce as each song played. When the album ended with “Jungleland,” I was hooked. I knocked on her brother’s door and asked if he could play it all over again. He thought I had a crush on him, but it was Bruce who touched my soul. It’s turned into a lifelong commitment. To this day, my friends from high school and I always go to see Bruce when he comes home to New Jersey. This love and dedication to our hometown hero I’m sure is one of the things that have kept us connected all these years. You might say Bruce is a tie that binds us.

As a varsity soccer player in high school, I was lucky enough to be part of a really good team. Every time we won, our team captain Maureen would blast “Joy to the World” on her boombox. I can still replay the scenes of us on the bus — sweating, dirty and bruised, screaming that song at the top of our lungs with huge smiles on our faces — like flashbacks in an ’80s movie, hair and all. Every time I hear that song it still conjures up feelings of sisterhood and ultimate girl power. 

My husband and I started dating in college and being a Long Island guy, his love and devotion to Billy Joel wasn’t too far behind my dedication to Bruce. I’ll never forget, as we drove to the movies on only our second or third date, him passionately singing “You May Be Right” while drumming on the steering wheel of his army green Volkswagen Rabbit that was way past its prime. I remember being impressed at how comfortable he was doing that even though he was no singer, no drummer, and he was driving a car that literally had thumbtacks holding up the fabric of his roof. That’s authenticity and it was one of the things that made me fall in love with him.

music and memory, soundtrack of our lives

How music and memory intertwine; my Spotify playlist

Music and Memory: How Music Shaped My Family’s Life
My son was only about 3 years old when he became obsessed with “Sweet Caroline” (aren’t we all?). Every day, right before dinner, he’d come running into the kitchen and say, “Let’s dance, Mommy,” and I’d put on Neil Diamond’s signature song and we’d dance around the living room and every time the chorus came on he’d jump in my arms and I’d swing him around and around. Most people have good memories of singing along to this one in a bar or at a wedding but for me, it’s all motherhood and apple pie — not that I’ve ever baked one of those!

One day my daughter came home from 2nd grade, very upset. The boys she had been playing soccer with every day during recess all of a sudden decided that a girl shouldn’t play with them. They told her girls just weren’t as good. I told her bullshit and instead of going on a feminist rant, I let Helen Reddy do it for me. I blasted, “I Am Woman” from the stereo and I sang loudly while she danced happily. As soon as it was over, she said “again” and we did it all over again. After about 10 times, lots of laughter and jumping on the couches, we both felt a lot better and decided that boys are just stupid. 

When she was in 4th grade, it was starting to get harder and harder to get her out of bed and mornings were becoming unbearable. After a particularly hard morning with lots of yelling and eventually tears, we got into the car so I could drive her to school since she had missed the school bus — again. I hated the feeling of going to work and sending her to school after a morning like that. It gave me knots in my stomach. That morning when we got in the car “Baby Got Back” came onto the radio and I decided to turn it up. Some might argue that was highly inappropriate for a 4th grade girl, but it was exactly what we both needed. Every day after that, throughout that entire school year, we got into the car and sang and danced in our seats to that song. Mornings got a lot better and that’s all that mattered.

This idea of a soundtrack to our lives hit me a couple of years ago when my daughter was home from college and we were driving in the car. “Her” music included “My Chemical Romance,” Minski, and a host of other artists who I can’t remember the names of but certainly know the songs. But when she synced her music to my car radio, I noticed she had created a playlist that included most of the songs that were on my Spotify playlist — “American Pie,” my favorites from Tony Orlando and Dawn, “Cecilia,” a few Kenny Rogers that reminded me of my mom’s Kenny Rogers phase and, of course, plenty of Bruce, which she used to always groan about as a teen when all I would play was E Street radio. My son also groaned over my Bruce obsession, but today he has the famous Bruce and Clarence photo from the Born to Run album hung behind his desk and in the background of every video call he does from his home office. Though neither of my children ever said it out loud, I know that the music we shared in their childhood is a way for them to be “home” even when they aren’t. And that makes me so happy in my heart.

As we move through our lives, we realize the small moments and how they moved us along our journey were actually big moments. When I look back and recall the moments where I felt loved, strong, independent, empowered, and good enough, there’s always a song that goes with it. It makes sense why science has proven time and again that music boosts our mood and well-being.

I can attest to the fact that on the days when I’m feeling exactly the opposite of loved, strong, and empowered, the perfect playlist puts me right back on track.

  1. Christine Krahling

    Loved this and could relate to so much of it! From one Jersey girl to another–great job!

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