Music and Memory

The piano nocturne filtered quietly through my computer speakers, its notes rising and ebbing shyly back again. My suitemate Angela hummed appreciatively, leaning back against the wall and closing her eyelids lightly. “My sister played this piece on the piano,” she told me, opening her eyes. “I miss my family. The last time I heard my sister play the piano was nine years ago.” We listened together as the piece made its way to the final build up of emotion and subsequent collapse until the last notes dissipated off the keys. Watching her, I could see that she was in that moment, nine years back, when the magic of her older sister playing the piano held her rapt.


Music is both literally and figuratively a function of time. It draws us in to its tempo, transporting us back and forth in time through each crescendo-ing memory. When I listen to Mahler’s Ninth Symphony I am in Interlochen, Michigan, watching the setting sun filter sweetly through skinny tree branches. Sufjan Stevens’ Impossible Soul takes me on midnight car rides through sleeping suburban streets.


In this way, music exists in a dimension beyond space and time. Philosophers refer to the sum total of one being’s state of existence as a space-time worm. My space-time worm extends to include my past, present, and future in one winding path. It is this worm that defines my identity, creating continuity between my infant self, my present self, and my uncertain future. Each piece of music I listen to can tap into my space-time worm. My relationship with any one song changes over time, and yet maintains all of my previous experiences of those notes. As I listen to a familiar melody, the music transports me to different times in my life when that song played in the background of my internal experience. My relationship with music extends through space and time, weaving a continuous map of my growth, memories, and emotions. The space-time worm of music extends even beyond my own experience to it. Music connects us to others, weaving them into our memories and thoughts. It was a pleasure to watch Angela, to see her recall her love of her sister between the notes.


In his “Visions of Johanna,” Bob Dylan sings mournfully, “Ain’t it just like the night to play tricks when you’re trying to be so quiet? We sit here stranded, though we’re all doing our best to deny it.” Dylan’s lamentation is tempting to fall into at times, but the music itself negates the possibility of his isolation. He claims to be stranded, an island of a man, but by communicating this worry in song, he is reaching out to others, affecting their thoughts and emotions. Through music and the memories it evokes, we are connected to each other and to ourselves in an acutely intimate way. It makes sense that Elgar would seek to immortalize his loved ones in the phrases of his Enigma Variations. The music lasts, still drawing us in decades later, folding modern audiences into the declaration of his affections. Just as Yeats writes that poetry “survives in the valley of its making,” so too does music. It survives in a valley furrowed in time and memory, where just the rise and fall of piano keys contain a whole world of human history.


Jenna Kainic


Originally Published in the Fall 2012 Issue