Musical Imagery: Carved in stone?

Jan 07, 2010 • Diary

We have all been there before… or at least, to God, I hope you have been.

You will be completely focused on a task at hand–working, playing, creating, fucking–whichever, and then it happens. Regardless of your level of concentration or amount of enjoyment, a song will come on, randomly, that brings you to your fucking knees. Whether it is the first darkly familiar strum of a guitar, a beautiful raspy voice delivering a resonating lyric, or a bridge and chorus that rattles your mind and heart, it just doesn’t matter.

Music affects us all in different ways, and the instant a song comes on that has served as a backdrop to something magical, something memorable, or something terrible, we are immediately brought right back. The time warp is immediate, and the memory will be as clear as a bell. And, depending on how life altering or monumental the soundtracked experience was, an entire scene will flash before your eyes, in your mind, and you will be rendered incapacitated.

There are many songs that are special to me. All for different reasons and different chapters, but I’m not about to get into each and every one. However, there is something interesting that very recently happened to me regarding this phenomenon, and I wanted to explore.

There is a particular song by Nine Inch Nails, which was played for me by my first girlfriend when her family was moving away, and we knew it was the end for us. Now, you must understand that I was infatuated with this girl through and through. My first love, and it was all encompassing.

We lied side by side on the floor of her room on her last night before the move. The lights completely off. Darkness blanketing us with only the sounds of our breathing to be heard against the cold silence. Then it began. The haunting piano notes mixed with the deep and disturbing bass chords, sending a feverish chill toward those areas reserved for the most exhausting of emotions.

I still recall the taste of your tears
Echoing your voice just like the ringing in my ears
My favorite dreams of you still wash ashore
Scraping through my head ’till I don’t want to sleep

These chilling lyrics are the start of Trent Reznor’s epic ode to insatiable desires called “Something I Can Never Have” If you know it… then you get it. If you don’t, stick to Britney Spears–it is much safer for you.

I haven’t thought back to that night in a very long time. As a matter of fact, the song had been dubbed completely off limits for a fair amount of time–once I decided I had enough of the soul tearing tears of a flickered first love. I would do my best to re-create the entire scene…darkness, quiet, the smell of her perfume… everything but the girl beside me. It got to the point that I no longer even needed the perfume. All I needed was the song, played at incredibly loud levels to vibrate my being, and it brought back everything I craved. Her beautiful scent would fill my entire existence.

Once it was declared dead to me, there were times its airing could not be prevented, and depending on the situation, shit would just get uncomfortable. Over the years, I heard it less and less, the impact of the song dwindled as my memories of the girl faded away. I still remember her, and I remember how she captivated me…but the effect of the song was eventually no longer there.

And this is where my questions lie. Are musical memories carved in stone for eternity? Or, like anything else, do they fade? Is it possible for a song to provoke different and new imagery from what it originally fueled?

I’m leaving those answers up to you, the readers. However, I will share one more little tidbit.  Many years after my first girlfriend played the NIN song for me, I met a woman for drinks while we were both spending some time in another city. Conversations were had prior to the meeting, which gave us an inkling of the chemical potential, but completely unaware of the eventual flammability of our mixtures. Long story short–we drank, we ate, we fucked, we caressed, and then we fucked some more and more. We connected on levels I won’t even begin to disclose for this entry, frankly, because you have not yet earned those types of details.

But, as we laid there, side by side, with the cityscape through the window, her dark hair contrasting against white sheets, I decided to make a new stone carving. I reached over to the iPhone dock, scrolled to the Ns, and pressed play. She exhaled and sent a dramatic plume of smoke into the air, as the haunting piano mixed with the deep and disturbing bass began to fill the room. She closed her eyes to take in the music like she just took a bite of pancakes and syrup on a Sunday morning. I closed my eyes as well, and took in the musical imagery. And at that moment, that incredibly memorable instance… I smiled at the beautiful scent of a new perfume, now filling my existence.

  • corn walker

    I can’t help but offer a pedantic answer to your question, which is that memory is fluid. If you research the work of Dr. Elizabeth Loftus and others you’ll find that our memories are entirely untrustworthy. In fact, your memory and retelling of the story of your first love, while real and true to you, may not in fact be how it happened at all.

    Each time we recall something we re-remember it and can in fact alter the memory. Recently researchers have discovered that there is a critical window in this re-encoding process where we can actually change our memories of an event. This has practical implications for dealing with traumatic events. It also has deleterious effects for eyewitness testimony, as Dr. Loftus’s research illustrates.

    When we think of memories, we’re primarily drawn to our recollections of what we were aware of doing, however those cognitive memories are also supplemented by sensory details. The reason why this memory remained so strong for you is that it combined an emotionally important cognitive event with sound, scent, and touch, leading to strong implantation. We all remember trifling details when a big event happened (e.g. JFK shot, Challenger exploded, WTC towers fell) but not necessarily what we had for breakfast three days ago.

    So yes, memories can appear indelible and the greater significance we place on them, the more present they remain. At the same time, it is possible to recode those memories by attaching new significance to them. By avoiding the NIN song you helped keep the association with that first event. By playing it at a new, significant time you’ve diluted the power of the trigger. If you played that song after every fuck, it wouldn’t hold nearly as strong associations for you.