Why music, especially early music, can tap into our deepest and most meaningful memories of life

CBC radio specials49:00music to my ears

Dylan Sinclair’s musical education began early, in a gold Nissan Murano. Sinclair, a Juno-nominated artist in Toronto, can still remember driving around with his father and listening to R&B songs. It was Kevin Sinclair’s favorite music. Dylan has learned to love it too.

One song stands out: Excuse me lady by Chris Brown. Dylan was a little guy: four, maybe five years old.

“I remember my dad had his album playing the whole time we got in the car,” Sinclair recalled. “And that song was a lot of fun. I don’t know, as a kid I could identify with it. And to this day it’s still one of my favorite songs.”

Whenever Sinclair hears this song, he’s a little boy again, sitting in the back seat of the Murano.

“And he has it on repeat. That, Mariah Carey, just R&B,” Sinclair said, chuckling.

Juno-nominated R&B artist Dylan Sinclair has fond – and vivid – memories of listening to music in his father’s Nissan Murano as a kid. (What I Like Studios)

Many of us know a song that evokes a specific memory: a song comes on at a party or on the radio and we are instantly transported to another chapter of our lives, to a time or moment that song found its way into our life.

This connection is one of the reasons why music – especially early music – is so meaningful to people. It’s also why music has become such an important coping tool during the COVID-19 pandemic, in part to help us connect with people we haven’t been able to be with during lockdown, physical distancing and travel restrictions.

“Music is a really good way to take us back to those kind of earlier times, before COVID, when we could actually get together with friends and family a little bit more,” said Kelly Jakubowski, a researcher in musical memory at Durham University in England.

“Many of our music-related memories are of other people, and that has been shown to outweigh certain other cues. So I think music can really bring back those memories during this time when we’ve had this lack of social contact, so loved ones especially well.”

Old songs are becoming more and more popular

Since the start of the pandemic, we’ve seen a huge surge in the popularity of older music on streaming platforms. According to MRC, a music sales data provider, old songs accounted for 70 percent of the American music market in 2021. That’s an increase from 65 percent in 2020.

Granted, only songs released in the last 18 months count as new music. But that thirst for vintage tunes shows up elsewhere, including on film and TV soundtracks.

stranger things sent British singer Kate Bush back to the top of the charts running up That Hilla song she released in 1985. The new top gun Film tripled the streams of heaven in your eyesthe multi-platinum hit by Canadian rock band Loverboy in 1986.

Even the 2021 Super Bowl halftime show was a celebration of nostalgia rap, including artists Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, 50 Cent and Eminem.

Going further back to the first pandemic lockdown in April 2020, Spotify reported a 54 percent increase in listeners creating “nostalgic-themed playlists,” along with an increased proportion of listening to music from the 1950s, 60s, and 70s 70s. 80s

It’s in part our digital age that allows music lovers to explore and discover music from all eras, rather than relying on what’s on the radio or heard at a party or dance hall.

But according to Jakubowski, music can also act as a social substitute, which is something many of us needed to cope with isolation and loneliness during the pandemic.

“Even when we’re not around other people, the feel of music is kind of calming and makes us feel like there’s another person around in a way. It’s kind of an imaginary friend,” she said.

“Maybe the message of the lyrics resonates with us and makes us feel like we’re not alone.”

Canadian music icon Jann Arden shares this sentiment.

“Music is so important… It shapes your childhood and youth,” said Jann Arden. (Vivian Rashotte/CBC)

“Music is so important,” she said. “It shapes your childhood and youth. There is an anthem for everyone. It’s balm for the soul. It’s a babysitter and a counselor and a friend.”

For Fatima Elrafie, music is a way to feel close to her mother, who died in 2013. While Fatima and her siblings were growing up in Calgary, Susan Elrafie always sang I just called to tell you that I love you by Stevie Wonder. She even called her on the phone and sang it for effect.

It drove the kids crazy when they were little. But when Susan became terminally ill, the meaning of this song increased.

Fatima Elrafie, left, and her mother, Susan Elrafie. Susan died in 2013. Fatima is transported back to her mother’s last days while listening to Stevie Wonder’s I Just Called to Say I Love You. (Family Elrafie)

“When it was her last days in the hospital all the hospital staff got this one volunteer to come in and actually bring a piano to her hospital room and they played the song for her and they sang it to her like the whole one Unity, which is crazy,” Elrafie recalled.

“She was really sick, so she wasn’t really showing a lot of emotion, but when they started singing the song to her, she had this huge smile on her face, literally from cheek to cheek. Her eyes just shone so beautifully.”

Now Elrafie can remember everything from that day, from what she wore – a purple headscarf and a new tan jacket – to the smell of fresh coffee in her mother’s room, which hospital staff brought in on a trolley for family members who gathered at her mother’s bed.

“Whenever I hear this song, which doesn’t happen often, all I can think about in my head is that big, adorable smile she had,” Elrafie said. “It brings me back to that specific moment, even if it’s just a 10-second window.”

The Reminiscence Bump

Jakubowski notes that we generally listen to the same songs over and over again—especially our favorites—more times than we might re-read a book or re-watch a movie.

This repetition helps solidify the memories, especially those from our youth when we are still growing and developing our identities as individuals – including our tastes in music.

It’s related to a phenomenon known as the “reminiscence bump,” where we tend to remember most vividly events from our lives during our adolescence and young adulthood, including music from that period.

Not only that, music is often associated with the most important moments in our lives: falling in love, leaving home, getting married, or even difficult memories, such as leaving home. B. a broken heart.

When we listen to the song again later, we remember tiny sensory details of that moment. Researchers in Jakubowski’s field use the term “music-evoked autobiographical memory” or MEAM to describe the experience.

Whenever Hafsa Maqsood hears it Low by Flo Rida, she’s back in 3rd grade, on the school bus in Calgary. She recalls riding the bus with the windows down at the end of the year while the radio was playing.

“When it came on, the whole bus would burst into the chorus and wave their hands,” she said.

“It’s this great reminder of coming home and all the kids of all ages, from all backgrounds just singing the song together. Many of us didn’t know what it meant.

“But every time I hear this song, it reminds me of that part, back when people of all ages could just come together for a piece of music and weren’t always connected to their personal devices.”


Written and Produced by Elizabeth Withey, with files by Meegan Read. Click Listen above to play Music To My Ears, which includes interviews with musicians Jann Arden, Hawksley Workman and Dylan Sinclair, as well as musical memories from Canadians coast to coast.

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