It was a dreary Monday morning that day. Writing it off, as usual, Monday morning blues wasn’t quite cutting it; it was more than that. Before I knew it, I was feeling physically nauseous and febrile, and somehow remembering Horlicks! Yes, Horlicks, the children’s health beverage. As the thermometer busted my conjecture that I was falling sick, I faintly recognised a familiar song playing from a neighbour’s house. I knew instantly that my malady had something to do with that song. It was a piece in Raag Jaunpuri, an otherwise grand, melodious and majestic Raag, sung with panache and pride by the greats. Why was it bothering me? I was not only surprised but also mighty embarrassed to admit, as a classical musician, that a song based on a melodious Raag was having this effect on me. I decided to dig deeper and make an honest inquiry.
The memory came back to me like a bolt of lightning. Many decades ago, it was on an odd Monday that I had been down with jaundice. My mother had been checking my temperature between bouts of my throwing up and trying to rehydrate with Horlicks. And there was that same song playing on our old tape recorder at that very moment. This is the memory that came back to me when the song played again, on another Monday many decades later.
This is only one of the thousands of anecdotes we hear when we see people responding to music. Memory has a powerful connection with music. Most of us would be familiar with how easy it is to slip back to the ‘feel’ of school or college years by just playing a song which we swayed to, many years ago. It brings alive the sounds and smells of the canteen, our friends, the breeze in the school corridor, or the excitement of college festivals. Such is the emotive power of music.
Research on our brains including neuro-imaging studies, have shown that music stimulates many different areas of the brain including the visual cortex, and gives us a big rush of dopamine while we hear familiar music. It may also on occasion bring forth unpleasant memories associated with it. Also, hearing the same songs again and again, especially during memorable events or formative periods in our lives, make them stay on, etched deep in our memories, sometimes for life. We are very good at recognising music that we have heard before and associating it with certain memories. Scientists have found that even babies can do it from birth. No wonder that a member of the audience in one of my concerts told me that a song I had sung very emotively on stage, had kindled a vivid visual memory of a rude neighbour from her childhood! While I did not see the connection and was offended then, I now understand her reaction much better.
Whether it is Classical music or any other form of music, strong memories associated with a song often override any intrinsic mood-creating effect the song itself might have. For researchers and therapists looking to understand the relationship between music and the mind, it is of paramount importance to understand the subjectivity of how music is processed, and how a particular piece of music gives access to the individual’s psyche.
So, while I try hard to keep at bay the powerful images, smells and feel of the time long ago when I was sick while listening to Raag Jaunpuri, I will remember what my brain has taught me about memories and music being inseparable. Something I could use to my benefit henceforth. Perhaps with a song or Raag playing alongside every happy memory I create from now on, I could have a shortcut to happiness in my pocket, one fine Monday many years later when I am feeling the blues.
The writer is a vocalist of both Hindustani and Carnatic Classical music, with over three decades’ experience. She is also the founder of Music Vruksh, a venture to make classical accessible for its aesthetic and wellness benefits.
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