Few experiences feel as ‘in the moment’ as listening to music. But what we hear is shaped by our history. Nothing better illustrates William Faulkner’s famous phrase: ‘The past is never dead. It’s not even past.’
All that you hear in music is heard in the light of what came before, both a moment ago and a lifetime. Take a Bach fugue. The whole point of the form is that we pick up echoes of the same melodic fragment, delighting in the interweaving, the repetition, the ingenious overlaps and small mutations. But there’s much more than that to the role of the past. We pick out the metrical regularity even while the voices dance around it. We retain a memory of the initial key, so that we have a sense of coming home when it returns after a modulation.
What’s more, I hear this music differently from Bach’s contemporaries, and indeed differently from you, because I listen and interpret through the filter of my own unique musical experience. I hear it in the light of Beethoven and Bart.k, and also of The Beatles, James Brown and Glenn Branca. I hear it through a template of expectation and reference forged by my history.
It might seem irrelevant that I listened to ‘A Day in the Life’ before Bach’s Art of Fugue, but it isn’t. We are innate pattern-seekers – that trait helps us survive – and it is what makes us inherently musical beings. We build up a personalised library of reference points for making sense of music. Much of this relates to the notes themselves: we recognise the scales, harmonies and rhythms that our culture uses, for example. In the West we’re accustomed to hearing minor keys as poignant or sad, dissonance as ominous. But we also have an exquisite ‘genre radar’, laden with status judgements and so sensitive that we can often identify genre, and sometimes even a specific well-known song, from just a quarter of a second of music. Beyond this, we have personal associations: that song makes us sad because it was played at a funeral, this one reminds us of Christmas when we were ten.
We begin to build up our musical storehouse from the earliest age – while still in the womb, for the unborn baby can hear. Infants respond to music, but it can be hard to figure out what they are responding to: is it the up-down contour of a melody, as some studies suggest, or the timbre of the sound (the carer’s voice, say), or the sequence of pitches? Yet by 18 months they know their favourite tunes, one way or another.
As with language, by that stage they are identifying regularities and correlations: they have laid the foundations of the template that they will draw on to experience music throughout their life. And they are singing: not just imitating parrot-wise, but improvising freely and creatively. Between the ages of two and three, these songs have conventionally musical structure: repeated melodic contours, dynamics, stable rhythm. The child has learnt the rules.
‘The music imprinted 31 in that burst of neurological development during late adolescence will never leave you’
From that point on it’s all refinement: better pitch discrimination, sharper rhythm, a sense of key and harmony. Your musical memory bank is stocked well enough for you to navigate increasing complexity – indeed, you crave it. From the teenage years, if not before, you discern that music can excite intense passions, that it shapes and signifies personal identity. Much of the music you hear between the ages of 10 and 30 will never leave you, particularly that imprinted in the burst of neurological development during late adolescence. This ‘reminiscence bump’ is found for other stimuli too, such as books and films, but it happens earlier for music, which means that you can acquire strong and emotive recall for your parents’ choice of music too – doubtless an uncomfortable thought to some of us.
These connections retain a Proustian intensity: one psychological study showed that the memories evoked by music in older adults are richer in detail than those recalled without it. Blues guitarist Mike Bloomfield had it right when he said that music becomes ’the background track for your existence’.
Since music excites the pattern-sensing neural circuitry pre-verbally, it’s perhaps no surprise that the connections remain when words are failing, such as in the later stages of dementia. But MRI studies of the brain have suggested a specific explanation for this: the areas of the brain used to store memories of long-known music seem relatively immune to the ravages of Alzheimer’s disease. Some neuroscientists speculate that musical memory might be the anomaly, the ‘black swan’, that helps us understand how neurodegenerative diseases work.
And this musical spark should be seen not as the last faint embers of a dying fire, but as a non-linguistic link to the person who is still there. To partake and participate in music is to enter the flow of a communal history. Music only works because we have all built it together, by tacit consensus, over lifetimes and centuries. Its patterns and puzzles are not natural phenomena but human, cultural ones: they speak across time, across age, and beyond words.