The Emotional Memory of Music

You’re standing in a shop and a song comes on the radio that makes your heart do a little dance and you smile. Perhaps it reminds you of a happy wedding, a joyous celebration or a ridiculously fun weekend with friends.

 

“No Life Without Wife” from the movie “Bride and Prejudice”, once performed (with costumes) at a raucous girls’ weekend away. Still makes me laugh.

You’re sitting in the car and a song comes on the radio that makes your heart skip a beat and tears appear in your eyes. Perhaps it reminds you of a significant loss, a painful goodbye or difficult time in your life.

 

“Turn, Turn, Turn” by The Byrds, played and movingly danced to at the funeral of my sister and niece.

Music has memories. The most potent of these are emotional memories.

 

“Deep Peace” by Bill Douglas from the album “Celtic Twilight”. I compiled a playlist of Celtic music as a ‘birthing tape’ for when my boys were born. This song always makes me think of them. (Unfortunately, I actually forgot I had the tape when I gave birth to my first child. With the second one, he arrived so fast the tape didn’t make it out of the bag. It was only with the third child, who took his sweet time coming, that I got to enjoy the whole playlist. Many, many times…..)

Songs can be the most likely to bring up memories, as we connect not only to the music but also to the lyrics. Words can have power.

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Sometimes it may even take you a while to realise why a song or piece of music is making you feel the way it is because the emotional memory of it remains strong while the mental memory has faded with time.

The emotional memory of music can also linger for much longer than the situation that created the emotion. A song may have triggered a strong reaction because of the space you found yourself in at the time and the connection you made to the lyrics. Years later, you may no longer be in that space in your life but hearing the song can still elicit the same reaction as the first time you heard it.

 

“Here We Are” by Belinda McArdle. This is written and sung by the amazing woman who runs the community singing group I attend. When she first introduced this song, I was at a stage in my life when I didn’t know what I was doing, what I was supposed to be doing or where I was going with my life and I felt I was wasting the gifts I’d been given. This song made me cry. That was four years ago and until very recently, if it came on my playlist in the car, it would still make me teary. This despite the fact that I have now found my way and I am happy and fulfilled in my life. I am no longer in the place I was but the emotional memory holds tight.

I do believe it’s possible to change the emotional memory of music. If the new connection is stronger than the previous, it is possible to change one type of memory for another.

I recently attended a vocal workshop facilitated by Belinda and it was an amazing experience of finding newfound confidence and trust in my own voice. After the workshop, we sang the chorus of Here We Are together and it was a powerfully emotional experience for me. And thus, the emotional memory of this song rewrites itself to a new one. This song now reminds me of what my voice can do if only I trust in it.

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What song or piece of music holds strong emotional memories for you?

 

 

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The Sun Is Waiting

When Ukulele Me made an appearance recently, I gave a commitment to post some ukulele music in the not-too-distant future. Accustomed as I am to doing things the hard way, I’ve chosen to write an original song.

Life has been a bit difficult lately but through it all I have been grateful for the gift of being able to express the unexpressable through the written word and through music.

It’s a song about hope, the only thing you can cling to when the world turns dark. The sun will always be waiting to shine light into the deepest shadows.

This song is dedicated to my friend Lisa who knows more than most about waiting for the sun.

 

 

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It’s Ukulele Me!

Ukulele Me

Ukulele Me

She’s here! Ukulele Me has finally joined the clan.

Translation: I bought a ukulele today.

It may have been retail therapy, it may have been a flash of carpe diem, or maybe it was just a burst of madness.

Some (The Husband mostly) would say that maybe I should finish learning how to play the banjo I bought two years ago before investing in yet another musical instrument.

[Shrugs and points to herself] Jack of All Trades.

Enough said.

Ukulele

 

 

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Once More With Feeling

Piano Keyboard

Piano (pɪˈanəʊ) noun: A place of solace, calm and emotional recovery.

I play the piano. Well, it’s one of those many Kinda-Sorta skills I possess. I had lessons from about the age of nine until I gave it up at thirteen. I never sat an exam and my regular practice routine was to madly run through the pieces 30 minutes before my lesson. So I didn’t progress very far.

After I gave it up, I didn’t go near the thing for about a year. Then my mother slyly bought me a music book of movie themes, me being a mad movie buff and all. It got me hooked again and I’ve been playing ever since.

I’m still not particularly skilled and I don’t play in public, barring a brief stint as pianist with the church band. Very brief. The week a visiting preacher added a song I hadn’t practised and sang another at twice the speed I was able to play it was the end of my accompanist career.

One day when I was bemoaning my lack of skills – probably not long after the above incident – someone said, “But you play with such feeling.”

I’ve held onto that comment ever since. It’s probably the reason I still play with any regularity. Even if I can’t play with great skill, at least I can fill it with emotion.

And playing the piano has become a place of feelings.

Sheet Music

My piano is an oasis of sanity in the craziness that is my life. It can be hard to get piano time in a house full of demanding boys and a life full of demands on my time, so a visit to the piano can often be the sign of a desperate need to escape for a while.

Physically, playing the piano invokes memories of easier times and simple childhood pleasures. It once belonged to my mother and it has a small warped spot on the lid where it was damaged when my mother’s childhood home caught fire. It is a part of my mother’s history.

And it is a part of my own history. I remember standing at it, my eyes barely above keyboard height, tinkling away on the upper keys. A little bit older, I used to play records on the stereo and play along – sometimes in line with the music, sometimes as a harmonic addition. ‘Popcorn’, on an old 45, was a favourite.

Musically, it helps me connect to emotions old and new.

Take the other night…

Mull of Kintyre –  I’ll remember standing on the Mull, travelling alone in my 20s, and feeling the thrill of discovering the mist really did roll in from the sea.

Mull of Kintyre sign

Mull of Kintyre

(I love the Drivers Note on the sign: “Congratulations on safely negotiating one of Scotland’s most exciting roads!”)

 

Bring Him Home – I’ll remember the first time I saw Les Misérables on stage and how magical and moving I found it. And then I’ll laugh at the memory of the next time I saw it, sitting in the cheapest of cheap seats in a theatre in the West End where I sat so high in the gods, I saw Enroljas get up off the back of the barricade after he’d died and walk off the stage.

 

Vincent – I’ve always loved this song, love Don McLean’s music but now when I play it, I’ll confess I always picture the scene from the Doctor Who episode ‘Vincent and The Doctor’ when they take Van Gogh to the future to show him how famous he becomes. Written by Richard Curtis and with an uncredited performance by Bill Nighy, it is one of my favourite episodes and it is a scene that makes me cry every time.

 

Sometimes I play my own compositions. (Don’t get excited – Jack of All Trades, remember?) It gives me time in my own head and I connect to the emotions I felt as each song worked its way out of my head and heart. Songs written from pain, from joy, from love, from memories and sometimes just for fun. It’s a connection to both the past and the future.

I’m very grateful to my parents for allowing me to ‘inherit’ this piano when I moved into my own home all those years ago. I couldn’t possibly have lived without one in the house but it means so much more to have one that is also connected to my past.

I’m just not sure what will happen when the next generation pianist moves out of home…

 

 

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Lighting The Dark

Light the Dark

On Sunday 23rd of February 2014, an event called Light The Dark was held across Australia. Tens of thousands of people gathered in large crowds and small groups, in capital cities and country towns, to hold candlelight vigils in memory of Reza Barati, a 23-year-old Iranian asylum seeker who was killed in the Australian detention centre on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea. It was also a protest at the inhumane levels our recent governments on both major sides of politics have stooped to in their asylum seeker policies.

It was an incredibly moving experience and while many tears were shed, there was also hope. Hope that the voices of compassion will be heard. Hope in the knowledge that we are not alone. Hope that a movement of people can and will bring about change.

Sometimes the written or spoken word fails me. Sometimes the only way I can respond to feelings felt deeply is through song: “Light The Dark” – a song of light and hope in a time of darkness.

To see some inspiring photographs from Light The Dark:

36 “Light The Dark” Photos That Will Restore Your Faith In Humanity

 

 

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2014: Sailing Away From The Safe Harbour

It’s a New Year and with it comes a fresh opportunity to shape our world. 

So this is my wish, a wish for me as much as it is a wish for you: in the world to come, let us be brave – let us walk into the dark without fear, and step into the unknown with smiles on our faces, even if we’re faking them. 

And whatever happens to us, whatever we make, whatever we learn, let us take joy in it. We can find joy in the world if it’s joy we’re looking for, we can take joy in the act of creation. 

So that is my wish for you, and for me. Bravery and joy.

– Neil Gaiman, 31 December 2012

I took Neil Gaiman at his word in 2013 and did a number of things that scared me. It’s not that I joined the Peace Corp and went to a war zone but I pushed myself to do things that were well outside my comfort zone.

I left a highly comfortable and easy job to venture into a career where I really had no idea what I was doing. I started a blog, recorded some of my own songs and put them on SoundCloud, sang a solo for the first time at my community singing group, submitted a book to a publisher and attended a number of workshops that pushed me into unfamiliar territory.

All of these things frightened me but also, once achieved, brought great joy.

I usually prefer not to make New Year resolutions. I don’t need a year of guilt that I’m not doing what I promised myself I would. I tend to be the Make It Up As You Go Along type.

But for 2014, I resolve one thing: To continue to do the things that scare me most and to always find the joy.

There’s a quote, often attributed to Mark Twain (falsely as it turns out), about sailing out of the safe harbour and pursuing your dreams.

“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines, sail away from the safe harbour. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”

This is my resolution for the new year and my wish for you.

Chase your dreams and find your joy.

May the coming year bring you new adventures and
may your trade winds always be favourable.

HNY

 

 

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A Sister Lost – Remembering Keryn

Twenty years ago today my eldest sister and her newborn daughter died in a car accident. In the space of a little over a week we went from celebrating the joy of new life to the horror of sudden death. We were a family not so much ‘touched by the road toll’ as slapped, kicked and punched by it.

As we each struggled to recalibrate our lives in this new reality, the family fractured. In time, most of those fractures have healed, some forming a bond stronger than before, but some have never mended and remain a constant reminder of the scar of family tragedy.

Nine years older than me, Keryn was my Big Sister. The most alike of all our siblings, in looks and interests, we had a unique bond. It began as that of small child and substitute mother. She was always the one to care for us when our parents were out or away, particularly when we lived overseas in my earliest years and there was no other family to help. When my mother was hospitalised for several weeks when I was three, it was Keryn who dropped me off at childcare on her way to school as my father had to be at work very early.

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I have a scar on my forehead. As a recalcitrant five year old, refusing to get in the bath, I was dragged to the bathroom where my head accidentally connected with the door frame. I needed three stitches. For many years I blamed this incident on a sibling with whom I had a fractious relationship. It was not until after Keryn died I discovered that it had in fact been my beloved eldest sister who had inflicted the damage. It’s interesting how our childish brain can rearrange an historical event to fit the more obvious narrative. I wish I had learned of it before she died. I would have apologised for my behaviour.

It was Keryn who introduced me to theatre, specifically musical theatre. She had been a member of the local Gilbert and Sullivan company for a number of years and when I was sixteen, she took me along to join the chorus. We spent nine years sharing the stage. After she died, I couldn’t bring myself to perform with the company without her. I didn’t join another theatre company for 15 years but when I did, I joined one that had known and loved my sister and that still honoured her memory.

In my late teens, it became my turn to play babysitter as I took the role of occasional carer of her children. After I married, our lives met on more equal terms and our relationship grew to that of friends. Then, just as it seemed our lives had synced, she was gone.

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When my husband and I decided to start a family, we always planned to give a daughter my sister’s name as a middle name. We had three boys. But in the way of the universe sometimes, for our third and last child, we had chosen the name Kieran if the baby was a boy. We chose it just because we liked it. It wasn’t until he arrived and I had to accept I would never have a girl that I realised how similar the name we had chosen was to my sister’s name. It became a way to remember her in the only way we could.

When Kieran was five years old, he was at a well-known fast food restaurant for a birthday party. The young man running the party was asking each child their name and what they wanted to order. When I asked to see his list to check what my son had ordered, the young man had spelt my son’s name ‘Keryn’.

She is never far away.

Keryn and Me

Grief takes an unusual and sometimes confusing path. As one would expect, for the first few years birthdays and anniversaries were highly emotional days to be confronted and endured. As time passed, these seemed to become easier. Sometimes the day would pass barely noticed. Then, a few years ago, so many years after the event, these days became difficult again. Perhaps it was the realisation that she really wasn’t ever coming back. Perhaps it was my own arrival at significant life moments that triggered memories of what I had lost. Perhaps it was the signs that life had moved on and I secretly yearned for it all to return to ‘normal’.

So now I sit simultaneously in a state of acceptance and denial. I accept that she is gone and our lives have adjusted accordingly and yet I still find myself wanting things to be as they were even whilst knowing they cannot.

All I can do, in light of the unimaginable, is remember the time that we did have together, hold on to the memories that last and continue to miss her every single day.

(I felt a very strong need to write a song to remember my sister this year. It wasn’t easy but this is my song for Keryn.)

 

 

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When A Bad Day Turns Good

The other day I had to speak to a group of kids about maintaining hope when things aren’t going so well. We talked about bad days. Here’s what they contributed.

“So, how would a bad day start?”

“When you have to get up early.”   “When you get out of bed and bump your head.”   “When you don’t want to get out of bed so you bump your head.”

“So, you’re up and you have to get dressed. Then you find out you don’t have any clean socks. Or worse, no clean underpants.”

“Or no clean pants or tops or anything and you have to go out in the nicky-nicky-nude.”

“It’s breakfast time. You pour the cereal into your bowl, you go to the fridge, open the door and…”

“There’s no milk.”   “There’s nothing there at all.”   “You have toast.”

“Then you go to school (probably hungry) and the teacher says, ‘I hope you have your excursion permission slip today. You won’t be able to go if you don’t.’ Of course you don’t have it.”

“I don’t want to go on the excursion anyway.”

“It’s the end of the day and you’re waiting for your mum or dad to pick you up…”

“And they FORGET!” “AGAIN! And look surprised when you walk in the door having walked home! On a hot day!” “That’s happened to me!” (This generated a fair bit of passionate discussion almost exclusively from my own children. So I told them, “Every child has to be forgotten to be picked up at least once in their life. It’s a rite of passage.”)

“So you get home (somehow), sit down to do your homework and…”

“You’ve forgotten your homework book.”   “You’ve forgotten your textbook.”   “You forgot your school bag.” (I’m a bit worried about some of these children.)

“Dinner time. What would dinner time be like on a bad day?”

“You drop your plate on the floor.”   “It’s food you don’t like.”

“What sort of food would that be? What don’t you like?”

“Chocolate cake with pumpkin.” (The mother of the child who said this stood up and announced loudly, “I’ve never served that!”)

“So by this time you probably just want to go to bed, right?”

“No.”

A Bad Day

A Bad Day

I love talking to kids about stuff. They are small conduits of innocent perspective and transparent wisdom. And often hilariously funny.

Having dissected the components of a bad day, we then spoke about what might help to make it a better day and we agreed talking to someone could help. (Someone said, “Talk to your mother” to which one joker responded, “Unless it’s your mother that’s giving you the bad day.” Predictably, the joker was one of mine.)

We talked about prayer and how it can help to send a silent call for help and know that even if there’s no magic to make the bad day just disappear, it can make a difference to know you’ve been heard and someone cares you’re having a bad day.

I’ve written previously about the remarkable singing group I attend every Friday. I’d had a tough week and by the time I walked in the door for singing last Friday morning I didn’t know if I wanted to burst into tears or punch a wall. Over the course of the next hour a beautiful thing happened.

Occasionally we are given the opportunity to volunteer to sing a verse solo during a song. The rest of the group joins in with the chorus. At these times I usually become incredibly fascinated with my shoes. It was always something I was never going to do. But on this day, I felt a metaphorical prod in my back and to everyone’s surprise (certainly mine), I slowly raised a quivering hand and said, “I’ll do it.”

When it came to my turn, I was terrified. My hands shook so much I looked like I was fanning myself and I wondered how anyone could possibly hear my voice over the loud thumping of my heart. But I did it. And survived. And I knew I was fully supported by the group.

Afterwards, people made sensitive, encouraging comments and I felt uplifted. Soon, I came to realise that my bad day had come good. When I had cried in the car on my way there, “How am I going to get through today?” I could not have known that help was on its way in the most unlikely of occurrences.

A Good Day

A Good Day

For me, it’s God. For you it may be the Universe, your own inner voice, or someone else’s voice in your head. Whatever it is for you, when the bad days come, send out an SOS and be prepared to watch and listen, and then to respond to the help that will come, sometimes in a way you might never imagine possible.

 

 

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The Friends We Deserve

I had a birthday recently. Let me just say I am not the world’s most enthusiastic birthday celebrant and the older I get, the less enthusiastic I become. Friends asking “So, what are you doing for your birthday?” are inevitably met with “Nothing.”

It’s not that I’m unhappy to have a birthday. As Larry Lorenzoni pointed out, “Birthdays are good for you. Statistics show that the people who have the most live the longest.”

I’ve just always felt mildly embarrassed to invite people to celebrate my birthday with me. It seems somehow selfish and self-aggrandising. Birthdays were never lavish affairs growing up and I’ve toned them down since then. (Although, I do remember my 11th birthday when I and my friends were taken to the circus. We had whistlepops.)

This year, some of my friends decided a non-celebratory birthday was unacceptable so they kidnapped me and gave me a birthday celebration anyway. It made me wonder what I’ve done in my life to deserve them.

Do we get the friends we deserve? Is there a Friendship Karma? A Buddy Balance Sheet? Do the friends you get measure up to the friend you are? If there is a balance sheet, I think I’m in the red. I’ve been blessed with friends far in excess of what I deserve.

Some friends have come into my life when I’ve needed them and exited when I no longer did. Some have come into my life and stayed. Even the Poor Choice friends of my youth have served a purpose, showing me the lifestyle I didn’t want and pushing me towards new friends who made me feel safe instead of scared.

I’ve certainly tried to be a good friend but at times I’ve failed, as I suspect we all do at some point in our lives. Lack of contact, being unavailable and, worst of all, hurtful words spoken out of thoughtlessness have all been committed by me. Perhaps it’s the errors we make that show us which of our friends are the stayers. I feel an eternal debt to those friends who have forgiven and forgotten the mistakes I’ve made and stuck by me.

I can’t imagine a world without friendship. While your family is meant to love you, friends choose to love you. They choose to spend time with you. And they are often the ones who know the Real You, especially the Lifelong Friend. Lifelong friends have seen you at your best and at your worst, they’ve shared your growing up, your life-changes, your highlights and your lowlights. That doesn’t mean that lifelong friends only arrive in childhood. Sometimes they appear later in life but come to know you so well it’s as if they have been a part of your life forever.

I wrote this song for my friend Carolyn for her birthday a couple of years ago. The words are equally applicable to so many of my friends. Friends I continue to do my best to deserve.

 

 

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