Essays

How Music and Memory Work Together When You’re Processing Trauma

A song can transport our minds back in time – but there may be ways to unlearn the pain we associate with a piece of music, too.

by Ben Charlie Smoke; illustrated by Esme Blegvad
Oct 4 2018, 2:13pm

Illustration by Esme Blegvad

Content/trigger warning: sexual assault.

“Stop that Tony” she said as I fiddled with her seatbelt, trying to loosen its grip on her papery neck. My grandma had mistaken me for my dad, again. Her dementia crept up her slowly, and then fell upon her quite suddenly. As we arrived at a busy inner city junction, she looked at me, her face contorting with horror as she leaned towards the open window and screamed at passersby – “help me! help me!”.

She didn’t know who I was or who she was, let alone where she was or why she was there. When we transferred her to a new home, capable of attending to her increasingly complex needs, she’d fidget in her chair when we visited, anxiously turning her hands over one another, slurping at weak tea with her gummy mouth. She’d mumble and worry, or cry out for help. Things changed only when a certain piece of music played – something from The Sound of Music.

I have never seen the film. Two minutes of Julie Andrews dicking around on top of a hill was enough to convince me that it probably wasn’t for me. That being said, I know one song from the musical intimately – “Edleweiss”. That’s the one my grandma loved. Whenever we sang it together, her demeanour changed – the tension left shoulders, her eyes stopped darting around and the mischievous glint I inherited from her returned. She still didn’t know our names. Or hers. Where she was or what year we were in. But she always remembered every single word of that song, and revelled in it.

“Music seems to be able to get into a place that’s protected [from the dementia]” Dr Claire Garabedian tells me, when I ask about the link between music and memory. As an associate researcher in creative arts and dementia at University of Worcester and a certified music practitioner, she spends her life exploiting this ‘safe place’ – using music as a conduit to reach a part of a person that has been all but lost, bringing them back from the other side and into the room again.

According to Dr Garabedian, we’re able to recall stuff from the past while listening to tunes, because “music has a way of bringing back memories far earlier than anything else.” On the one hand that’s a good thing: it can take you back to falling in love, to a specific birthday or night out. On the flipside, one wrong note can take you back to the depths of depression or a bad mistake. And then, beyond even those moments, music can reach down into the deepest, darkest bits of your memory pools and wrench open things you didn’t even realise were there.

Just like my grandma and “Edleweiss”, I also have a song that jolts my brain into action. You’ll remember Tatu’s “All The The Things She Said”. It was released in the early 2000s, around the time I saw my dad’s best friend for the last time in several years. Let’s call him Brian.

Six years after the release of that song, I was 17 and living in the office block of the company my dad worked for, on an industrial park in Cornwall. There were no real washing facilities or cooking facilities. I was the level of poor that meant I’d scour the car park once everyone had gone home, collect up all the cigarette butts and empty the tobacco from each into my pouch so I’d have a little bit left to smoke.

One day, Brian came round to visit. He’d split up with his wife a few years previously and come out as gay. He had two children who were a couple of years younger than me. On this day, Brian was driving from Cornwall to Wales and needed somewhere to crash for the evening. He brought round beer and cider which we drank merrily, chatting about memories. He told me about me as a child. How I’d visit him in the office where he and my dad used to work, sit on his lap and scribble furiously. As we laughed and reminisced, the beer cans opened up into wraps of speed and coke. We cut and huffed line after line from the conference table.

Before long, I was on top of him, naked, on the pull-out bed in the corner of the room. The memory of the event is less a memory and more a series of blurry flashes of consciousness. I remember my heart racing in the way it only can when you’ve had too many amphetamines. I remember leaning over to vomit black stuff in between being thrown around like a rag doll. I remember looking down at his face as it contorted in ecstasy. I remember the red of the blood the next morning.

For years, I told myself it was a funny story. Ha – I slept with my dad’s best friend. Classic me. And then one day, maybe five years later, I was sitting on the couch in my Whitechapel flat. My laptop’s tinny speakers were playing 00s throwback tunes. But when the gyrating, breathless synths of “All The Things She Said” kicked in, I was thrown back to being a kid. To jumping around in my front room and playing at my dad’s office with Brian. And suddenly the gravity of what happened that night on the sofa bed became very real. It raised up in my throat and filled my lungs with icy horror as I vomited up the memories of his assault into my bin. When I’m old and fading away in a home, will those synths and guitars still throw me back to the memory of the past? Will Brian still have a hold on me into my seventies and eighties, long after he’s died?

As a way to find out more about the link between music and memory, I ask Dr Garabedian about Chris de Burgh’s “Lady in Red”. My parents chose it as the song to soundtrack their first dance, in 1989. But ever since they divorced in 2003, my mum refuses to listen to it. Is it possible to recode our connection with a song, to change it from bad to good? To save ourselves from emotional landmines when we turn on the radio?

“That’s the thing – for your mum, that song was once a good memory, before it became bad. So it’s already been recoded, which means there’s hope for it to be recoded again – it just needs the right scenario”.

When memories are formed, they encode themselves into us, carved into our grey matter like grooves on a vinyl record. There’s still debate as to how exactly that happens, whether it's down to the creation of a new synaptic connection between neurons or whether something changes deep within those neurons. What we do know is that those grooves run deepest when etched in with music – but unlike vinyl, which is stiff and set, our memory is complex, flexible and malleable.

When my mum hears “Lady in Red”, she hears sadness and pain. But underneath that rests the hope and the happiness that she once felt. Her experience and connection to that song has unconsciously changed as she has moved through life. Perhaps, if she listened to it again in moments of peace and serenity, then it would be recoded again as related to a happy memory.

Music has the power to take us back to a place. But, we, to a certain extent, have the power to choose how music brings us forward. We have the power to take songs and experience them in new contexts. To write new memories into them, that don’t necessarily erase the old ones, but sit on top, alongside and within. Above all else though, the fact that pieces of music can weave their way into our brain chemistry and become a fundamental part of us is, in of itself, incredible. It means that for people like my gran, dementia doesn’t have to swallow them whole. There is a bit of them left, under the surface and waiting to be discovered. If nothing else, that should bring us a little hope.

You can find Ben on Twitter.

This article originally appeared on Noisey UK.