Friday, November 28, 2008

Musical memory

On Tuesday night, as I was trying to fall asleep, with the Thanksgiving holiday approaching on Thursday, I found myself having fallen victim to yet another earworm (see my posts on this phenomenon in early September):

The first and last verses of an old Thanksgiving song kept running through my mind:

Over the river, and through the woods,
To Grandmother's house we go;
The horse knows the way to carry the sleigh
through the white and drifted snow. . . .

Over the river, and through the woods,
Now Grandmother's cap I spy!
Hurrah for the fun! Is the pudding done?
Hurrah for the pumpkin pie!

I had planned throughout the week to sit down on Thanksgiving Day itself to write about the virtually universal association in human society of celebration with song. But my plans were altered by the dreadful terrorist attacks in Mumbai, with two locations--Victoria Terminus and the Taj Hotel--being places I had visited numerous times during my travels to India, spread over more than 40 years.

Only today am I able to resume my thoughts on topics musical, having been at the forefront of breaking news for 21 years as chief of VOA's Urdu Service, and habituated during that time to following hourly developments in such events, with the saturation coverage we have all experienced recently. At this point, not feeling very celebratory with all that has happened during the past three days, I will save my reflections on holiday songs until later in December, and turn briefly tonight to another subject that fascinates me: musical memory.

I think most of us have found that music in general, but more particularly individual songs or works of music, can form associations and emotions in our minds that may pass from consciousness for a period, but which may be suddenly awakened through a process of involuntary memory.

The term was coined by Marcel Proust in his great work, Remembrance of Things Past, to describe the transforming emotions he experienced upon tasting a cookie from his childhood.

I have found that I can chart the years and eras of my life, from my early childhood, by the songs and musical pieces I discovered at the time: I can capture the essence of my experiences by listening once again to the music--particularly when I am hearing that music after a long period--as in the case of the childhood holiday song, with which I began today's entry, that haunted me as I drifted off to sleep.

Perhaps this is too subjective a topic for the VOA World Music Blog, yet I am taking the chance of pursuing it in the interests of beginning to explore some of the more subtle ways in which music can influence our emotions and even our actions, and in the hope that some readers may send some of their own experiences in which involuntary musical memory can bring the past alive once again.

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