child listening to music through headphones with eyes closed
Photo by jonas mohamadi from Pexels

Here is a familiar scene: your spouse, child, parent says something like, “Remember? We just did that last week.” And you search your mind and adamantly argue the thing in question did not happen last week. Neither of you are wrong, but somehow, due to the vast mysteries of the universe encompassed in the human brain, you remember last week differently.

For many people, music becomes part of memory. You listen to a particular song and it comes with a temporal frame, a moment, a scene from the past. Recently I’ve been exploring childhood memories through music because I’m preparing to launch a novel where people who follow the faith of my childhood are the antagonists. Music was the hardest thing to lose when I left that faith, so I’ve been evaluating its current role in my life, trying to remake the memories and experiences it has been tied to.

For instance, this song by Avalon (wow I’m dating myself) only has one line about God and otherwise can just be understood as a song praising the universal value of love and acceptance. But I associate it with summer days in the early years of having a driver’s license, raising my hand to the ceiling (as we did in church) to feel the Holy Spirit. The song is tainted by memory.

Here’s the other thing. Our brains imprint formative experiences from childhood and early adulthood much more strongly than our older years. So replacing those early memories is challenging because they are, effectively, part of who we are.

To that end, I’ve been exploring the possibility of a musical biography. An outline of your life in musical moments.

Like every other exercise, this can be for you personally or for a creative figure you’re writing. Divide your life into segments. Maybe you have a first memories segment, an early childhood segment, and then segments for elementary, middle, high school, and college/early adult, etc. (Or do it a totally different way.)

Think of a song that defines that time in your memories. If you’re feeling ambitious, also think of a song that defines you as if you’re in a movie. (The diegetic vs non diegetic soundtrack). What do those two songs say about your experiences? How does life change between our experience and what is seen from the outside?

Here is a brief example from mine.

Earliest memory: My father singing Good Night, Well It’s Time to Go by the Spaniels when he puts me to bed. I KNOW this happened, but my father has no memory of it. In a movie, my very early childhood would have this Japanese child’s song that featured often in a Barnie-like TV show because I started life in Japan.

Both of these songs come with lots of meaning, but they are both interesting because they don’t really belong to the characteristics of my life in any way that makes sense. My father singing a song from the early fifties (a song that pre-dates his own childhood), and a song about a Japanese elephant even though I am not a Japanese child.

Of course, when I asked my father about this song, he had no memory of singing it to me. So here we are again at the beginning, me pondering the possible truths in memory. How I can remember something so clearly but my father cannot.

Jaye Viner knows just enough about everything to embarrass herself at parties she never attends. Her novel, Jane of Battery Park, arrives in August